Peary-MacMillan Arctic Museum & Arctic Studies Center Peary-MacMillan Arctic Museum & Arctic Studies Center



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This exhibit explores the traditional skin-on-frame watercraft used by Inuit across the Arctic for hunting, fishing, traveling, and recreation. From Alaska to Greenland and Labrador, Inuit customized these versatile vessels to suit the various water and ice conditions they expected to encounter.


Rutherford Platt, Little Eskimo boy in Kayak, Savigsivik, Greenland, 1947. Photograh. Gift of Alexander D. Platt, Rutherford Platt and Susan Platt.
Donald MacMillan, Eskimo Boy in Kayak, Greenland, 1938. Silver gelatin and pigment on glass. Gift of Donald and Miriam MacMillan.
John Kokuluk, Ivory Hunter in Kayak, Nome, Alaska, before 1970. Ivory and pigment. Gift of Howard and Lise Nickerson. Photo by Luc Demers.
Isabelle Kridluar, Kayakers, Repulse Bay, Canada, 1995, Antler on sinew. Gift of Robert and Mary Lou Sutter collection.


A kajak, more commonly spelled kayak in English, is the quintessential watercraft of the Arctic. Now familiar to boaters around the world, this versatile craft was developed thousands of years ago by the ancestors of the contemporary Inuit for hunting and traveling in icy waters. For most hunters it was an essential component of their equipment, most importantly for hunting and fishing, but also as transport and even racing and rolling competitions.

Traditional kayaks are made from a light framework of wood covered in waterproof skins. They are completely covered, with only a person-sized hole in the top for the paddler to sit in. They may appear simple, but making and using kayaks requires complex skills that that take years to perfect. Across the Arctic hunters adjusted this basic design to build vessels suited for their particular needs and the conditions they expected to encounter.

Kayaks and their equipment are marvels of engineering and craftsmanship that for generations were critical to the survival of Inuit families across the Arctic. By the middle of the twentieth century traditional kayak use and construction had almost disappeared in the wake of colonial disruptions. Efforts by both Inuit and Western researchers and kayakers beginning in the 1970s has preserved knowledge and revived interest in these remarkable boats. These efforts continue today.