In late March, when Seattle-based photojournalist Kiliii Yuyan was looking for muskox in Kotzebue, Alaska, he nearly fell through the ice, which had warmed along with the climate. Just days later, a group of locals fell through the ice and died. In June, while trying to find gyrfalcons, he had to wear shorts during unheard-of temperatures on the Tundra. A couple of weeks later, he was faced with record flooding while camping in the Brooks Range of Alaska.
Yuyan, who is Nanai (Siberian Native) and Chinese-American, has reported on social justice Indigenous issues for years. But this was the year, he says, where climate change was “in the background of every single story.”
When Yuyan is not in Alaska or the Arctic Circle reporting and taking photos for National Geographic, Bloomberg, or CNN, he calls Seattle home. And when he’s not out on reporting trips, he builds skin-on-frame kayaks in his loft in the Central District, near The Bikery.
His company, Seawolf Kayak, sells them and offers boat-building trips where participants learn about what it means to build a kayak through methods Indigenous communities have honed for centuries.
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In his loft, different models hang on the wall, light from overhead lamps reflecting on their slick and shiny surface. Yuyan points to their translucent skins. “Ballistic nylon,” he says. “A modernized version of mixing earthen pigments into the polyurethane.” The frame that holds up these tense skins is made from Western red cedar and bamboo for the ribs. There’s no metal involved, just mortise and tenon joints, cut by hand. “It’s relatively simple, and that’s one of the things I like about it: It doesn’t require a lot of tools.”
It takes Yuyan about 50 hours to build one from start to finish. But students? “Around 110 hours.”
Kayaks are the binding force in Yuyan’s life. Many indigenous people in the Arctic and beyond — including Yuyan’s ancestors in Siberia — have made kayaks for millennia. “I became a photographer because of kayaks,” he says. His first major story for National Geographic was about whaling out of traditional skin boats by the Inupiaq. That’s where he learned how to sew skins from one of the last elders who knew how to sew vessels with hide.
“When I first began learning to build traditional kayaks, there was almost nobody,” making them outside of Greenland. “It just hadn’t been done, and it was lost. I can almost guarantee you that it was happening in a few places, but they were unknown.”
In recent years, Yuyan said, the US and Canada have seen a resurgence of Indigenous and non-Indigenous kayak builders learning the craft.
“It’s so cool to be a part of that movement.”
But, he said, he is not bringing back “this frozen past that never really existed anyway.” What he does sits in its own category. It’s something new.
“The kayaks that I build [are] not really designed for going out to harpoon seals anymore. Back in the day, the most important thing that you could do was make sure that your kayak was quiet… being able to eat and have the hides, that superseded all priorities. Now safety is our highest priority.”
While growing up in different cities in the US as the son of refugees, the stories his grandmother told him anchored him. But he was most attracted to the tales “that came from the river and the sea,” including the story of his namesake, who rode an orca to find fish for the village.
It was no surprise to his family that Yuyan would return to the water and its stories later on. He found his way to kayak-building through his interest in survival skills, which he prefers to call hunter-gather techniques or “living close to the land.” Being able to build his own kayaks was one more step in that direction.
Though Yuyan has learned from other builders, he is mostly self-taught. Through research in history and other books and trying to rebuild replicas of older kayaks, he sharpened his skills. Soon enough, he was organizing weeks-long summertime trips to teach others how to build them while teaching his students about herbal medicine and identifying plants and trees.
“It’s really a way for me to be able to introduce indigenous culture, community, and thinking,” he says. “By the end, people have a much better cultural context for all of this stuff that’s happening today. And they are fascinated. But otherwise, it’s very hard to get people to engage and think about those things.”
Though he’s scaled back the number of workshops to make room for his reporting assignments while working on a book about kayak building, Yuyan hopes to carve out some time soon to teach himself how to build the kayaks of the Nanai. There are no drawings, however, and most of the original models have been lost — just one remains in a museum today, in Khabarovsk, Russia.
A couple of years ago, he wanted to go back there, to his home region for a story. But he asked the Russian authorities for a film permit— a mistake. “And if Russia doesn’t let you do one thing, what they really, really don’t like is drawing attention to what is going on in Indigenous provinces.”
Now, thanks to National Geographic Expeditions and Lindblad Expeditions, he’s been able to acquire a Russian visa and visited Chukotka, one of the indigenous autonomous provinces. That’s, he says, a major step towards getting permission to visit his ancestral province in Siberia.
“I see visits to my homeland in the future,” Yuyan said.