The Traditionalist: Mike Livingston

An Alaskan police officer reviving Aleut kayak-building traditions

“When you hand-make your own gear, it becomes yours, and you become your kayak.”

Mike Livingston, builder of traditional kayaks, was originally featured in ‘Gear We Love’ section of C&K’s December 2014 edition.

Photo: Kiliii Fish.
Photo: Kiliii Fish.

By Eugene Buchanan

As a police officer in Sand Point, Alaska, Mike Livingston is used to restoring peace to his community. But it's his revival of Aleutian sea kayaks that is making waves in the paddling world.

The part-time boat builder owes his obsession to his family lineage. He began paddling at age 7 in a kayak his father had built. As a teen, he learned the art of Aleut basket weaving and ancient Unangax (Aleutian) ways from Aleut elder Anfesia Shapsnikoff on Kodiak Island. In his 20s, he studied Unungax iqyak (kayak) construction under Aleut elders Sergie Sovoroff, Bill Tcheripanoff and Phil Tutiakoff.

In 2000, he led a team that built an uluxtux, or two-hatch traditional kayak, as part of the Alaska Native Heritage Center’s Qayaqs and Canoes project. The boat was later portrayed on the BBC's Edge of the Ice program, which postulated that people arrived in North America via kayak rather than by walking across an ice age land bridge. The uluxtax was perhaps the first such boat skinned with sea lion hides since the 1800s. Livingstone also learned the art of making chixtaliisix, a type of jacket fashioned from sea-lion intestines and attached to a kayak's cockpit, and has mastered ancient sea survival skills to pass on to Aleut youth.

A frequent symposium speaker who also studies how Aleuts' ancient spiritual beliefs related to sea kayak construction, he is currently working on his master’s degree in Aleut archaeology and his doctorate in instructional design. He has taught iqyax building throughout Alaska's Aleutian, Pribilof and Shumagin islands. It's all part of an effort to keep the craft alive.

"Over the past 200 years, the construction and use of sea kayaks has declined, literally to the point of extinction when the last iqyax was taken away from the Aleutian Islands in the 1950s," says Livingston, whose Aleut nickname “Iqyax” literally means kayak. "Aleut culture has taken a heavy blow, but the more proud today's Aleut kids are of their past, the more proud they will be of their present and future.

“The ancient Unangax people were proud warriors who fought to their deaths to protect their families," he adds. "They were artistic and genius people who found ways to thrive in environmental conditions which challenge today's mariners. Often their very survival depended on their capability to build and use sea kayaks. I'm just trying to keep that tradition alive."

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