Saturday, May 5, 2012

Netsilik Kayak Construction Video

Here's an interesting video from the National Film Board of Canada showing the construction of a kayak by Netsilik Inuit people using almost entirely traditional methods. Filmed north of Hudson Bay in 1967, the family shown was apparently living a traditional indigenous hunting/gathering lifestyle, using skills learned through natural cultural transmission. In other words, it's the real, rare thing, not a conscious effort by the participants to preserve or recreate a vanishing heritage. 

The video is oddly edited, in that the construction steps shown are somewhat episodic and almost seem to have been randomly selected. (They are, however, in proper chronological order.) For example: although we see the cockpit coaming being installed, we don't see the construction of the coaming prior to its installation. Additionally, many minutes of film are consumed by scenery and nature shots -- nice enough in their own right, but not terribly useful to those of us interested primarily in the boat and the culture.

Most seriously, there is no narration (indeed, the soundtrack doesn't start until two minutes into the film), and I suspect that much of what is shown will make sense only to viewers who have some knowledge of kayak construction and building methods. But for those who understand what they're looking at, there's a wealth of useful detail. When the kayak frame is being lashed together, for instance, it's interesting to see how immensely strong a thin strand of sinew is: the builder seems to pull it tight with all his strength and it does not break. Generally, it's fascinating to watch the builders' use of tools and to see the specific techniques used in various stages of construction. One only wishes that it was more comprehensive and less eposodic (i.e., disjointed).

From what I can discern, the only aspects of construction not entirely traditional (i.e., pre-European contact) is the sparing use of steel tools (limited to an ulu knife, a knife of more European pattern, and a steel sewing needle), and the use of milled lumber for the main rails (gunwales) and perhaps some of the other longitudinals of the kayak frame. In Greenland, where European contact first occurred centuries prior to the Canadian Arctic, most or all of these technologies were adopted by the native people quite quickly, so their use here represents "modernization" of a rather modest extent. 

Thanks to David Ferch for pointing me to this source.


  1. Thanks for posting these videos. Like you, I wish there were fewer shots of ducks and more shots of the kayak being built. I suspect that this was the kind of film that students would be made to watch in social studies class, hence the attempt to entertain.
    I am curious if there is more footage somewhere of all the skipped parts of the construction or if it has long been lost or discarded.
    In general, I get the sense with this type of documentary that the people making it cannot imagine that anyone would be interested enough in this technology to want it to be documented thoroughly or completely enough to be able to use it as an instructional tool for building their own boats.
    Still, I feel grateful that something was preserved.

  2. Wolfgang - I also wonder if the good parts still exist somewhere. I'd guess that the filmmaker understood the importance of documenting the whole process, but the producer needed to edit it down to make it more acceptable for a general audience.