Light and Strong: Umiaks on Icy Seas
An umiak is a lightweight skin-boat built to bear heavy loads in the ice-filled northern Atlantic waters. For two thousand years, umiaks have been used for fishing and hunting large sea mammals. In summertime, they often transported entire families along with their possessions. Once on land, umiaks could be turned onto their sides to become houses, carving studios, or spaces for religious performances and games.
Umiaks’ strong driftwood frames averaged 25 feet long and were constructed to last for generations – but the outer skin of an umiak, made from walrus hide, had to be replaced every one to three years. Skin-cover-making was a community effort. After the blubber was removed from a walrus hide, it was soaked in seawater, and the pieces stitched together with caribou leg tendon or sinew thread. Before the skin cover dried, men lashed it onto the frame so that it would stretch taut across the timbers.
This particular umiak model traveled from Northern Labrador to the Peabody in 1904. It is believed to have been donated by Dr. Wilfred Grenfell, a British medical missionary who worked in Newfoundland and Labrador from 1892 until 1932.
The Northern Umiak: A Vessel for Survival
Pictured here is a model of an umiak of the St. Lawrence Island located south of the Bering Strait. Umiaks are traditional skin boats, used in native populations of circumpolar North America. The first umiaks were used about two thousand years ago. Despite existing in populations as geographically distant as Greenland and Alaska, the basic structure of the umiak has been consistent. A timber frame traditionally wrapped in walrus hide is what gives the skin boat its name. The taut hide is then stitched to the wooden frame by rope. Umiaks were often built to adapt to the sea or river travel depending on the area. Careful preparation of the hides provided a texture that could endure the hazard of puncture from crashing into ice or violent hunting episodes. The standard size of an umiak was often large enough for a couple dozen passengers (often rowers) to fit comfortably. When ashore, the umiak’s light yet durable structure could be hoisted up to its side, therefore providing shelter for communities within. The durability of the umiak, and its variety of usages for travel, hunting, and shelter, made it a symbol used in multiple populations for centuries.
The Inuit Umiak: A Vessel Built for Varied Use
The flaps of sails and smacks of oars against the Arctic waves surround you. Your feet are separated from the icy sea only by a quarter-inch of sealskin. You are a passenger in an umiak, a traditional skin-boat whose construction has evolved over thousands of years to perfectly suit the nomadic lifestyle of its Inuit creators. The umiak was large enough to hold thirty passengers yet light enough to be carried by just three, and was built to serve a variety of purposes. It was simultaneously a hunting boat, built for speed, and a traveling boat, built for distance—it could even be overturned and used as a shelter indefinitely. The umiak’s symmetric design is simple. It uses sails and oars for propulsion, and is made from a wooden frame over which a seal- or walrus-skin covering would be tightly stretched, allowing it flexibility to be maneuvered between ice floes. This particular model, donated to the Peabody from the collection of Wilfred Grenfell, an English medical missionary Labrador in Northern Canada, is an example of an umiak likely from the late nineteenth century.
Content of this page provided by students of Anthro 1218: Shipwrecks and Seafarers, Piracy and Plundering: An Introduction to Maritime Archaeology.