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Archaeologists have uncovered an old settlement estimated to have been the home of as many as five thousand Unangan. This discovery later demonstrated how extraordinarily well our people survived harsh environmental conditions; how they thrived on rich traditions of art, dance, music, storytelling, ceremonies, and rituals; and how they successfully used their knowledge of science and technology. They accomplished these feats because they were “real human beings” or “real people” who lived in the present moment and in their hearts. The heart was viewed as the place where a being is in constant communication with “all that is.” It was from this great sense of connection to everything that our laws for living grew, as did our natural laws and our spiritual instructions. It was what kept the people safe while working under and with the often brutal conditions of the Bering Sea. We were a deeply spiritual people. Everything we did and developed, including our technologies, were spiritually based.
The Aleutian and Bering Sea islands were formed either by volcanic activity or are tops of submarine mountains and as such are relatively barren except for the summer’s rich carpet of green tundra grasses and colorful wildflowers. Other than arctic foxes, there have never been any indigenous land animals. However, the Unangan found the Bering Sea teeming with marine mammals, fish, and birds—wildlife that was to be the foundation for supporting an Unangan population estimated to range from twenty to thirty thousand strong.
The Unangan, an advanced seagoing people, used their seventeen-to-twenty-foot kayaks, called iqyaxes (one-hole kayaks) or oolooxtahns (two-hole meat boats), to travel to the South Pacific islands, the Russian coast, southern California, and throughout the Bering Sea and North Pacific for weeks. These highly advanced sea kayaks were considered the “second wife” of the Unangan hunter and fisherman, and used to hunt whales, walruses, sea otters, porpoises, Steller sea lions, and northern fur seals. Ingenious methods were designed to catch large halibut from the kayaks, using seaweed rope and V-shaped bone hooks that ensured that the halibut never got loose once hooked. The sea-lion-hide-covered kayaks one made of driftwood, shaped over nearly a year’s time, to create an incredibly quiet, swift, and durable high-seas craft. To this day, Unangan kayaks are considered some of the best open-sea kayaks in the world, designed to take high seas coming or going with amazing stability. The kayaks are built in such a way as to move with every nuance of the sea, as if they are part of the sea. Unangan kayaks are the first high-seas craft known to have a form of ball bearings, made of ivory, to allow every critical part of the craft to bend with the movements of the sea.
A friend and I built an iqyax one year. It took us nine months, the same amount of time that it takes for a baby to be born. From building this craft, I was amazed to learn how my people knew the sea. We built the iqyax as closely as possible to the original way it was done. It was seventeen feet long and twenty-two inches wide. A split bow prevented the craft from submarining in rough seas—the sea would go through the split bow and lift it up so the craft did not submerge. The rear was of such a design that it helped maintain control of the craft in a following sea when the craft is moving down a swell, no matter how large the swells of the sea. The “ball bearings” would allow the craft to move with every movement of the water, making one feel as “one with the sea.”
There are stories told to me by my Kuuyux, a special Unangan mentor, of Unangan men who traveled in their seventeen-foot iqyaxes as far south as the tip of South America, southern California and the Pacific Islands, and as far north as Point Barrow and the Russian Far East. Our people’s navigational abilities were unparalleled in North America at the time.
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