Umiak | The Canadian Encyclopedia



Until recent times, the umiak — which means “open skin boat” in Inuktitut — was the primary method of summer transport for coastal Inuit , used for moving family and possessions to seasonal hunting areas and for whaling expeditions.

Kayak and Umiak
The kayak is a narrow hunting boat made of sealskin stretched over a wood or bone frame. The larger umiak was used for transporting goods and people (artwork by Gordon Miller).


The umiak dates to early Inuit (Thule) times (1000 CE) in the central Arctic and appeared in Greenland, Baffin Island, Labrador, the Mackenzie Delta, Alaska and eastern Siberia.

Design and Function

The craft could hold more than 20 people and was six to 10 m in length and more than 1.5 m wide at the centre. The frame was constructed of salvaged driftwood or whalebone, and hide lashings on pegs of antler, ivory or wood held the boat together. Hides of bearded seal sewn together with waterproof seams were stretched to dry tightly around the frame.

Families sometimes shared ownership of umiaks and used them to carry heavy loads of passengers and equipment during seasonal moves and the whale-hunting season.

Contemporary Use

Umiaks are rarely used today. They have been replaced by motorized crafts that bear resemblance to traditional umiak shape and design.

Further Reading