Qayaq Co-Op Campaigns on Kickstarter for $25K To Build High-Tech, Indigenous Boats

By Ralph Richardson, Indian Country Today Media Network

When Traditional Culture Meets High-Tech Construction, The People Can Qayaq Forward

More than 10,000 years ago, Eskimos constructed the first kayaks from stitched seal and other animal skins by stretching them across a wood or whalebone-skeleton frame. Called skin boats, they used them to hunt on the inland lakes, rivers and coastal waters of the Arctic Ocean, North Atlantic Ocean, Bering Sea and North Pacific Ocean.

Today, kayaking is one of the fastest growing sports in North America, with nearly 8 million active participants in the U.S. alone, up from 3.5 million just 10 years ago, according to the National Sporting Goods Association.

With its rising popularity, David Michael Karabelnikoff (Aleut/Athabaskan) noticed kayaking equipment was primarily being mass-produced. So, in August 2012, Karabelnikoff established Qayaq Co-Op with co-founders Julian Jacobes and Martin Leonard III.

The Co-Op’s mission is twofold, Karabelnikoff explains: To inspire a movement in Southeast Alaska to revitalize canoe building and paddling, while encouraging youth to learn science, technology, engineering and math (STEM), and to produce top quality kayaks that elite athletes would seek for their own use on the water. While the nonprofit embraces traditional Native craftsmanship, it also updates the kayaks, canoes, and skin boats with digital manufacturing and fabrication technology.

Karabelnikoff explains that the first aim, “is to provide high quality digitally fabricated and individually customized Qayaqs. We do this by providing high school and college apprenticeship programs to be mentored by master boat builders in digital fabrication and traditional boat building, which will help in placing jobs for the apprentice.”

These apprentices, or young Qayaq builders, measure the person who will be using the boat with a biometric model produced with a 3-D printer. This allows the apprentice to produce a digital fabrication. After this digital fabrication has been created, the apprentice selects materials and constructs the Qayaq according to the measurements gathered. According to Karabelnikoff, this process provides rich opportunities for learning in all 4 STEM areas.

In addition to working with young apprentices, the company provides kits to schools so that students can assemble their own Qayaqs. Learners can use the process of designing and modeling, as well as the construction of materials, to develop STEM skills. Providing kits to schools also encourages the revitalization of cultural skin boat skills. Karabelnikoff says he wants to match the level of traditional skin boat revitalization that he says is taking place in Greenland.

Karabelnikoff, 31, is focused on helping young people harness their future success. “We provide a culturally relevant context to digital fabrication,” he says, “which improves apprentices’ self-esteem, and establishes a basis for long-lasting success. By learning the skills needed to build a Qayaq, the apprentice will earn the pieces needed to build his or her own skin boat – the skeleton pieces, the paddles, and the skin. We provide the opportunity for building on a long line of successes.”

An historic Alaska Native qayaq (UA Museum of the North)
An historic Alaska Native qayaq (UA Museum of the North)

Qayaq’s second core mission develops equipment suitable for top-tier elite kayakers. Qayaq’s Bio-Metric personalized kayaks will allow the company to compete for elite customers willing to pay top dollar. He claims his Qayaq’s are not only customized to the buyer’s size, they are also socially responsible because they engage young people in positive work, and are environmentally responsible because kayaks encourage traditional boating.

While young people in local schools and who work as apprentices have benefited from association with Karabelnikoff’s non-profit, Qayaq Co-Op has put together a Kickstarter campaign to train at-risk youth, especially Alaska Native youth. With funding from the campaign, Karabelnikoff wants to develop a culturally relevant social enterprise. This initiative would provide workforce development training and digital fabrication training for at-risk youth, particularly those who are Alaska Native. As is the case with Qayaq Co-Op, this Kickstarter campaign also aims to demonstrate a positive image of Alaska Native cultures to the broader community.

In addition to targeting at-risk youth, Karabelnikoff wants to jumpstart the development of an Anchorage-based maker space, a community-oriented, physical place, where people can collaborate on Native projects. He also needs to purchase digital manufacturing tools and secure space for prototyping and fabrication. With these initiatives in place, Karabelnikoff hopes to generate support for building community-based businesses related to kayaking.  Currently, Qayaq’s Kickstarter campaign, which ends Friday, May 18, is about $20,000 short of its goal.

Karabelnikoff says, “Apathy is a difficult one to overcome, especially in meager beginnings. The cynical say that there are not enough young people interested in our traditional skin boats, that aluminum skiffs with power motors are the only thing youth are interested in.”

The Qayaq Co-Op is determined to show the world how hungry urban Alaska Natives are for culture and a connection with the technological understandings of their ancestors. Karabelnikoff says the Qayaq Co-Op is about more than business. “Aleuts are Survivors. We are descended from one of the longest lasting civilizations on the planet, spanning thousands of years. In less than 50 years the population went from 20,000 to 2,000. Now we stand in the doorway between oblivion and revitalization; at times I do feel that the place where I come from doesn’t exist anymore. Then I hear the call from the future generations and answer it with the only prayer I know, one to be guided by my ancestors.”

Support Qayaq Co-op on Kickstarter at