Classic hunting hats were painted with fine lines, “sand dollar” designs, swirls, rosettes, and leaves, using pigments made from plants and minerals. Long whiskers from bull sea lions were added in back. Only the most highly respected men—chiefs, whalers, and dauntless hunters—could wear the hats.
Region: Aleutian Islands, Alaska
Object Category: Hunting
Object Type: Hunting hat
Accession Date: 1868
Source: Capt. W A Howard
Museum: National Museum of Natural History
Museum ID Number: E005772
Mary Bourdukofsky: Unangam saleeg^uu.
Maria Turnpaugh: Those are the hunting hats. Only the hunters that caught the most could wear them. They had visors that the others wore, but these were special for the best hunters. The ones that were mostly decorated were for the best hunters.
Mary Bourdukofsky: It’s so fancy. I think after the hunting is done, when they start their ceremonial dances, maybe that’s when he puts this on. All that rough sea with these fancy things—I wonder if they still wore them like that [such decorated ones when they were on the water]. Maybe they did.
Maria Turnpaugh: Yes, they did.
Vlass Shabolin: Mm-hmm.
Aron Crowell: Was there any sense that these hats actually helped the hunters to be more successful?
Maria Turnpaugh: Well, it could make them see better, because it cut the glare from off the water.
Daria Dirks: I think someone told me they painted inside red, so it would help with the reflection problem. What’s this on the side?
Mary Bourdukofsky: A string for where they tie it under their chin.
Daria Dirks: Look at the colors on this one!
Aron Crowell: It seems to me like the designs are similar to the other one we just looked at [chief’s hat E011377].
Maria Turnpaugh: This looks similar, yes.
Mary Bourdukofsky: Similar, yes. They must have come from the same area. They’ve got the same design.
Vlass Shabolin: It would have to be the same tribe.
Mary Bourdukofsky: Those round flower-like [designs on sides], the same, eight petals. You know what this looks like is a sand dollar. The same design there, there, there, there [sides and front of both hats]. I think the same man made these.
Vlass Shabolin: Maybe it belongs to one family.
Mary Bourdukofsky: I think that’s the same color they used—red, blue, black, and a gold.
Daria Dirks: There’s the red, black, green, and this looks almost like a gold color. Look at the details on the ivory part [at back]. There’s details in the grooves, and there’s holes for the whiskers. And then they have these holes on top, maybe for the volutes, maybe a bird.
Aron Crowell: The paint on this one may have been touched up to make it so bright.
Maria Turnpaugh: The paint’s been touched up.
Mary Bourdukofsky: It’s not painted inside.
Vlass Shabolin: They’re sea lion whiskers right here. That’s what I was telling Mary earlier, that I thought it was from an old, old sea lion, you know, a big, big sea lion.
Maria Turnpaugh: This looks like what we use now, fishing line, the heaviest. That’s what we use nowadays, because we can’t get sea lions.
Aron Crowell: Would only be the biggest, bull sea lions have whiskers like that?
Vlass Shabolin: Yes, they’ve got a big head.
Maria Turnpaugh: But they could have added on.
Vlass Shabolin: It’s short piece, and then they tied another long piece to it.
Mary Bourdukofsky: This was made differently. The visor is attached.
Aron Crowell: Is that a repair because maybe it was broken?
Daria Dirks: Yes, there’s been some repair work done, because there’s twine.
Vlass Shabolin: Maybe it broke off, and they repaired it. Stitched it right on there [where crest meets bill].
Aron Crowell: If we turn it over we can see the inside and maybe see how the repair was done. I don’t know whether that’s a museum repair or Native repair.
Vlass Shabolin: The repair on there is so good.
Maria Turnpaugh: You can see this band around inside the back. This is used for reinforcement. And you can see right here [where inner band and seam meet], they tied it together. They probably had to make the seam tighter.
Daria Dirks: And there’s one [inner band] up front too to hold it together.
Maria Turnpaugh: And it looks like this [inner band at back] is a new one.
Mary Bourdukofsky: It’s been glued.
Maria Turnpaugh: They glued the edge and they tied it together.
Aron Crowell: Do you think it was an Aleut person that fixed the hat?
Maria Turnpaugh: Yes, I think so, because that’s how . . .
Mary Bourdukofsky: The wood looks newer in the front part.
Daria Dirks: This part [bill] is thicker too, than the back?
Maria Turnpaugh: Mm-hmm. He wasn’t doing his job right [laughs].
Daria Dirks: I can see the Elders just yelling at him.
[From discussion with Mary N. Bourdukofsky, Vlass Shabolin, Maria Turnpaugh and Daria Dirks (Tanadgusix Foundation) at the National Museum of Natural History and National Museum of the American Indian, 4/07/2003-4/11/2003. Also participating: Aron Crowell and Bill Fitzhugh (NMNH) and Suzi Jones (AMHA).]
1. The comments in this section are from the discussion of a similar chief’s hat E011377, which was examined just prior to this one.
2. According to Mary Bourdukofsky and Vlass Shabolin, this type of highly decorated hat is also called an angnak}um saleeg^uu [chief’s hat] or tuukg^uum saleeg^uu [head-man’s hat]. Saleeg^uu means “hat” of any kind, including a hunting hat, hunting visor, stocking hat or baseball cap. Angnakg^ux^ means “chief, leader, head man.” Tuukg^uu originally meant “government agent” and later came to mean “head man, chief, leader, boss.”
Chiefs, whalers, and distinguished hunters of the central and eastern Aleutian Islands wore richly decorated wooden hunting hats that marked their respected positions in classical Unangan society.(1) The shape of these prestigious hats—long-billed, with tall, pointed crowns—distinguished them from the open-topped visors used by ordinary hunters. Both kinds of hats were worn at sea to protect the eyes from sea spray and sun glare, and to conceal the wearer’s face from adversaries or strangers.(2) On land, wealthy men wore the full-crowned hats for festivals and visits to other villages.(3)
This hat, which was acquired before 1868, is among the oldest in the Smithsonian collections. It is brightly painted with red, black, and blue-green bands, round rosettes, and petal-shaped figures. Sea lion whiskers are attached to the carved ivory back plate. An old repair—a split sewn back together with sinew thread—can be seen on one side.
In terms of spiritual beliefs, Unangan hunting hats have been compared by anthropologists to masks that had the power to transform men into birds or killer whales.(4) Many tales tell of putting on animal skins of masks to achieve this kind of transformation, but a similar role for hunting hats has not been confirmed by Unangan elders or oral tradition.(5) However, Yup’ik seal hunters wore similar wooden hunting helmets to make themselves look like birds to their prey.
A hunting hat was made from single piece of carefully selected driftwood. The wood was split, shaved down to a thin plank, shaped into a hat pattern, softened in hot water or steam, bent into shape, and stitched together along the back seam with sinew or baleen.(6) The process took great skill and many weeks of intensive labor. The hats were painted and decorated with glass or amber trade beads and sea lion whiskers.(7) Colored minerals found in lakes and the vicinity of volcanoes provided many of the pigments that were used to make the paints.(8) Small ivory figurines representing men, birds, or animals were frequently attached, as well as ivory sidepieces (volutes) that represented birds’ wings or heads (see hunting hat NMAI 144870) .
(9) The finished hats were both rare and valuable, especially before Russian contact, when they were equal in value to a kayak or several slaves.(10)
In recent years bentwood hats have become an important symbol of Unangan culture and identity. Hat making was revived in the late 1980s by artists including Andrew Gronholdt of Unga, and today they are valued as regalia for dances and social occasions and also made for sale and display.(11)
1. Black 1991, 2003:123-143; Chirikov 1988:138; Coxe 1966:151; Jochelson 1933:10; Krenitsyn and Levashev 1988:248; Laughlin 1980:57; Liapunova 1996:218-225; Litke 1987:184; Veniaminov 1984:269-70
2. Black 2003:127; Jochelson 1933:26; Laughlin 1980:57
3. Laughlin 1980:57
4. Black 1991:36-41; Ivanov 1930
5. eg.. Bergsland and Dirks 1990:107, 331
6. Black 2003:128-29; Langsdorff 1993:II17
7. Black 1991; Ivanov 1930; Liapunova 1996:218-25
8. Beaglehole 1967:467, Hrdlicka 1945:102, Dall 1878:96, Hudson 1992:146; Merck 1980:66, 173
9. Black 1991, 2003; Jochelson 1933:26; Krenitsyn and Levashev 1988:248
10. Black 1991:67; Veniaminov 1984:269
11. Black 2003:141