The umiak was a type of Inuit skin boat first used around two thousand years ago. Averaging 25 feet long, their strong driftwood frame was covered with stretched skin. Light and flexible, the umiak could bear impressive weights of large crews and cargo. Inuit men used umiaks to hunt walruses and whales. When used to transport goods or families, the women who rowed would keep time by singing. The umiak’s role did not stop at the water’s edge. On land, it could be turned on its side to serve as a house, carving studio, or site for religious performance. This particular model made the journey from Northern Labrador to the Peabody in 1904. Scholars suggest that the “Dr. Granville” who made the donation was actually Dr. Wilfred Grenfell, a British medical missionary who worked in Newfoundland and Labrador from 1892 until 1932, and received an honorary degree from Harvard in 1909. Click to read more.
The “unuak” – also known as the umiak—served communities spanning the width of an entire continent for millennia. The functional seafaring vessel was commonly constructed by fastening walrus hide wrapped around a timber structure. Don’t let the simplicity of its construction fool you—umiaks are one of the most durable vessels known to northern native civilizations. Repurposing umiaks on land to provide shelter is one example of the versatility of the vessel. Common usage of the umiak was for large scale whaling expeditions, which carried great tradition and prestige for the men of circumpolar communities. Knowledge begins with curiosity, and curiosity grows in every corner of the Peabody museum. Come visit and learn more!
Descended from the Alaskan Thule, the Inuit were a nomadic people who adapted to extreme sub-Arctic climates by creating new maritime technologies—like the umiak—that allowed them to efficiently travel and hunt. This model, from the collection of an English medical missionary to northern Canada, is an example of an Inuit umiak, likely from the late nineteenth century. The umiak was a traditional Inuit open-decked skin-boat used by men for whaling and by women for transportation, and was also overturned and used as a shelter. It could hold up to thirty people yet often weighed so little that just two or three could carry it across the ice, making it well-suited for Inuit needs. More than a hundred years later, few traditional umiaks are constructed, making this model a unique and fascinating glimpse into the maritime culture of a resilient and remarkable people. Click to read more.
Content of this page provided by students of Anthro 1218: Shipwrecks and Seafarers, Piracy and Plundering: An Introduction to Maritime Archaeology.