They all build boats.
The similarities largely end there. Their homes are more than 1,700 miles apart. They speak different languages. Three grew up buying food from the grocery store; two hunt and fish for much of theirs.
But in the rotunda of the National Museum of the American Indian, the five men stood over the wooden skeleton of a kayak, lashing the final pieces of the frame together with thick nylon thread. Three were apprentices with the Alexandria Seaport Foundation, which prepares young people for carpentry careers through boat-building training and GED programs. The others were Inuit master builder Levi Illouitok and his son Liederiik, both from Kugaaruk, an Inuit village of 800 in the Canadian Arctic.
The Illouitoks have been in Washington for about two weeks, building kayaks for the museum, and Levi Illouitok had been to the museum twice previously for similar demonstrations. The son, who speaks both English and Inuktitut, translated for his father. Carolyn Rapkievian, deputy assistant director of the museum's public programs, said, "We wanted to demonstrate to visitors the cultural vitality of native peoples." There has been a resurgence in boat-building and racing in many indigenous communities in recent years, she said.
Levi Illouitok said he learned the art of building kayaks from his father and uncle. His tools were stone, and he turned his drill bits with polar bear-rib bows; now, he also uses some power tools. He crafts the boats on commission and can sell one for about $10,000, he said. His son, Liederiik, is learning from his father as well, although he must work as a parts man servicing many types of machines to support his four children, he said. The Illouitoks will give two more kayak-building demonstrations, from 10:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. and from 1:30 to 3:30 p.m. tomorrow, said Amy Drapeau, a museum public affairs spokeswoman.
This week's collaboration between the Inuit and the Alexandria Seaport Foundation started after the Illouitoks visited the foundation's carpentry shop, said foundation staff member Kurt Spiridakis. The foundation offers a paid program to teach young people -- most of whom have not graduated high school -- the carpentry and math skills needed to enter the Carpenters Union, Spiridakis said.
The Inuit had planned to build only one kayak during their stay here, said director Joe Youcha, the foundation's executive director, but when they finished 10 days early, Youcha proposed that they work with the foundation's apprentices on a second boat and they agreed, he said.
Jerson Herrera, an apprentice, said he found the project with the Inuit especially interesting because "their technique is totally different from what we do." Herrera has almost finished his apprenticeship and is planning to build his own wooden boat.
Techniques have changed since the days when kayaks were essential for hunting game -- and since the elder Illouitok learned to make the boats, stretching sealskin onto the frame. Yet the materials, processes and tools are still an amalgam of tradition and technology. The box of boat-building supplies next to the kayak contained both a cordless drill and animal bones to fashion the spear holder on the bow.
The Seaport Foundation apprentices had no trouble using power tools to cut the pieces for the kayak in their shop, but the Inuit craftsmen had to teach them how to lash, rather than screw or nail, some of the boat parts together. They needed to be shown all the steps, said the younger Inuit, "but they were okay," he added.
On Thursday, the Inuit and the apprentices set the kayak frame down to start fitting its wooden ribs with a skin of white ripstop nylon -- no sealskin for this one.
Its neat grid of curved wooden strips looked almost too graceful for the years of use and the choppy waters it is built to withstand. But the apprentices set to work with the Inuit craftsmen on the remaining few hours of effort to turn a wooden frame into a seaworthy craft that, however far it may journey on the water, represents a shrinking globe for its makers.