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Intertribal Project Celebrates Traditional Boat Building  

click to enlarge Community members tie lashings during an open house event.

Photo by Mike Ferguson

Community members tie lashings during an open house event.

Marc Daniels-Aygagnax had a dream to build a nigilax, the traditional open skin boat of the Unangax (Aleut) people. In 2014, he founded the immersive MakeAccess Iqyax Apprenticeships with his wife, Leah, teaching Native youth traditional boat-building. He had built single- and double-hulled kayaks, but the nigilax was different. Knowledge of how to build it barely survived settler contact. 

In the 1700s, the Aleutian Islands and its people drew the attention of Russian fortune seekers. Forced into slavery, surviving Unangax found themselves abandoned at Russian Fort Ross, unable to return home. Their descendants are still here. The traditional boats were purposefully destroyed by the invaders to break the chain of knowledge as well as the people. They almost succeeded.

Daniels-Aygagnax, owner of Mind's Eye Manufactory in Ferndale, knew the time for the nigilax had come. The team created two boats in 2022, which were met with joyous celebration. He had the studio space and knew what such a project would entail. He began with high hopes and before he knew it, he had an intertribal project. Daniels-Aygagnax reached out to the Wiyot Tribe for its blessing as the project is on tribal lands. He got that and hands to help. Aleut Unangax came from Alaska to work on the skin boat. The project received the blessings of the Qawalangin Tribe of Unalaska and the tribal government of Saint Paul Island, Alaska. Soon the Wailaki joined in providing enthusiastic support. Their ancestral lands were in the Eel River Valley, their traditional boat a dugout.

Kaneshia McGlashan-Price, representative of the Unangax, said, "This is an epic connection with Wailaki, building a bridging of tribes. A resurgence, that is happening right now." 

The Aleutian Islands are treeless, leaving the Unangax people little to craft boats from but what they hunted and what washed up on shore. There is intention involved in the collection of each piece.

"All projects begin with a walk on the beach," McGlashan-Price says. "It's not about having the boat but the process, putting yourself in the boat, so you only bring good energy to the project."

Some concessions have been made due to the fragility of wildlife populations. The endangered Steller sea lion will not be the source of the traditional skin. Instead, it will be replaced by a coated nylon fabric. First Nations peoples traditionally used every resource at hand, especially so in the sparse Arctic islands. The nigilax is being stitched together with tarred seine twine and a waxed nylon cord, commonly referred to as synthetic sinew, instead of traditional braided sinew and soften whale baleen.

Daniels-Aygagnax speaks of the boat building processes of tribe partners. Wiyot carvers take gigantic trees, tirelessly chipping away wood to create a vessel. It is the opposite in the Arctic. "To find the perfect piece in a sparse landscape and weave it together to go out onto rough waters. It's the cycle — you need the driftwood and sinews and skins and knowledge, but you need the vessel to get the materials. The cycle was broken but is now coming back." Each piece is marked with the location it was found, like the crook gathered from a Table Bluff beach. Clearly this is more than just building an accurate historical replica. "Our intention is to get youth on the water, and to make the vessels relevant, as opposed to being artifacts," Davis-Aygagnax says. The cycle is repaired with every stitch.

Daniels-Aygagnax is thrilled with the new connections, like that with Perry Lincoln, a Wailaki member of the Round Valley Indian Tribe. Local photographer Ryan Farmer is documenting the project. The non-Native community is showing up to meet the people. The project is bridging all the communities. Anyone who wants to step in does. "I never dreamed it could be this wonderful."

To volunteer or observe the artistry of traditional boat building, call (707) 834-3893 or email Or donate to the Community Nigilax Build at to help purchase a boat trailer for this incredible sea vessel. You can follow the project's progress on Facebook and be there for the nigilax launch to see the final stitch of the cycle as the skin boat enters the sea.

Meg Wall-Wild (she/her) is a freelance writer and photographer who loves her books, the dunes of Humboldt, and her husband, not necessarily in that order. When not writing, she pursues adventure in her camper, Nellie Bly. On Instagram @megwallwild.

This story first appeared in The Enterprise.

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