Nearly two decades ago, Sven Haakanson Jr. traveled from Kodiak to the Peabody Museum at Harvard University.
The Peabody had invited Haakanson, then the executive director of Kodiak’s Alutiiq Museum, and Ronnie Lind from Karluk to consult on the museum’s repatriation work in 2006. As they toured the museum, the kayak collection caught Haakanson’s eye. Once they finished their consultation, Haakanson and Lind doubled back to look at the kayaks.
As they perused the items in storage, Lind called Haakanson over to look at something.
“So I went over, and I’m like, ‘Oh my God, this is an Alutiiq kayak,’” Haakanson recalled.
The discovery of the rare, one-person kayak was remarkable. Haakanson said he knows of only seven such kayaks in existence. This one had been owned by the Peabody Museum for nearly 150 years.
Last week, Harvard announced the kayak, on loan to the Kodiak museum since 2016, would be permanently returned there.
Haakanson and Lind’s discovery led to a years-long partnership between the Peabody and Alutiiq museums to conserve the kayak. The Peabody announced Tuesday that it legally transferred the kayak to the Alutiiq Museum.
Haakanson, who is originally from Kodiak and is now the chair of the anthropology department at the University of Washington, called the transfer “astounding.”
“I am not just honored by that, but so appreciative of the respect given back to us in that act,” Haakanson said. “It’s humbling.”
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Tufts of human hair are sewn into the boat’s seams, making the kayak even more of a rarity. In Alutiiq or Sugpiaq culture, hair holds a person’s essence, according to Amanda Lancaster, curator at the Alutiiq Museum.
“It is such a Kodiak piece,” Lancaster said. “The fact that it does have pieces of hair, that makes it so culturally significant.”
The boat first made the journey to the Alutiiq Museum in 2016 on a 10-year loan. It quickly became a visitor favorite, according to Lancaster.
The kayak is 14.5 feet long and covered in oiled sealskin. Haakanson thinks it was used for hunting whales and that the hair sewn into the boat likely belonged to a skilled whaler.
“Having the hair of that person in that kayak gave the person using that kayak his power, his ability to be a good whaler,” Haakanson said. “The spiritual embodiment of that person’s abilities is sewn into the kayak itself.”
Through the 1990 Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, museums that receive federal money must return human remains, funerary objects, sacred objects and objects of cultural patrimony to their descendants or original community. The Peabody Museum has one of the largest collections of remains and items subject to NAGPRA requirements, and has returned about 4,000 individuals’ remains since 1990.
In 2021, the museum issued a formal apology for unethical practices that led to its large collections that fall under NAGPRA’s jurisdiction. In November, the Peabody also pledged to return hundreds of Native American hair samples that do not fall under NAGPRA.
The kayak also was not within NAGPRA’s purview, so the return was at the Peabody Museum’s discretion, according to Lancaster. Lancaster said transfers that do not fall under NAGPRA are “pretty rare” in the museum world.
Haakanson and Lancaster both commended the Peabody Museum for its work with the Alutiiq Museum to conserve and return the kayak.
“This whole process hasn’t been one of confrontation, it has been one of collaboration,” Haakanson said.
Nearly two decades since the boat’s discovery in Peabody Museum storage, Haakansan said seeing the kayak when he travels back to Kodiak is indescribable.
“How do I put that into words?” he asked.
He said the kayak “is really, really important because it puts this knowledge back into a living context where when you see it, it changes how you see the past.”
“Seeing it in person and knowing it’s there forever, for the community, I think opens up many, many more opportunities for kayaks to start taking a new role back in our communities,” he said. “Instead of having only seven collected, original kayaks, we can have hundreds more in the future.”