“Chief’s hat; decorated, closed top, long wooden hat”
Language: Unangam Tunuu (Eastern Aleut dialect)
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
Patty Lekanoff- Gregory: The men would wear these while out at sea and they were made for a couple of purposes. We have baseball hats to reflect the sun, of course you’re on the water that’s going to reflect the sun, but also it shielded the man’s eyes so he would not be seen by the sea mammal and they believed the sea mammal would give themselves to the man, the hunter with the most elaborate hat.
So, they were very simple initially with just bands and, of course they were natural colors, we use acrylic now and they became more elaborate after contact . . . Basically, they tell you the stage of where they’re at as a hunter, but also another story to tell is how successful of a hunter they are . . .
So, from a young hunter, to a younger man, and then a married man would wear this [long visor] in the community. . . but only one man per village . . . he would be the chief . . . would wear one of those [full crowned hats] and these hats were considered very valuable they were considered worth three slaves for, as a kayak was only worth one . . .
Audience: How about sizing? How would one keep the hat on and how would one adjust the size?
Patty Lekanoff-Gregory: Good question. The way they do that is, you can see they are tied in the back? And just like the baseball hats they have that little plastic tab, this one just has holes so then you just adjust them by size. This one is a lot bigger to fit my brother’s head and instead of gluing we can adjust to size, yep, so sometimes they would glue them when they are really small, but they would also make them adjustable . . .
Audience: Do you have chin strap or anything to keep it from blowing off?
Patty Lekanoff-Gregory: Good question. Here you go, Delores [Patty Lekanoff-Gregory’s daughter and apprentice hat maker]. Chin straps were used . . . they would be made out of sinew and we use it now with different colors. So you can see Delores [Patty Lekanoff-Gregory’s daughter and apprentice hat maker] is putting it on and tying it.
And good question because normally you would have your hood on from you raincoat, you’d have that on first and then if she puts this one . . . go ahead put this one without your hood I’ll show what it does — it falls forward. [If Delores puts her hood on] it usually doesn’t fall forward and you can tie it, so they would wear it — of course their raincoat, their chigdax^ [gut parka] was made out of gut so it was waterproof, so the man would wear this while out at sea and then just tie it on.
Patty Lekanoff-Gregory: And this was traditionally a man’s work in my Aleut culture, but nobody was really passing it on so I, you know again had the opportunity to work with Andrew [Gronholdt, late master hat maker] . . . We don’t know how our ancestors bent our hats, but in order to teach our students, to teach me, and me to teach other culture camps he [Andrew Gronholdt] mass-produced these jigs or forms and that’s what we use to dry the hats . . .
Traditionally they would use rocks, stone tools for their carving tool, but we are fortunate to have the metal chisel and it works very well . . . So we boil them in water for 30 minutes, you know hold them down with a rock and they’re weighted. As soon as they are taken out, and we have gloves on and stick them in the jig and they are in there for 24 hours and they’re dry . . . then when we pull it out . . . we have to tie them together otherwise they flatten out to like a duck bill .
But, also after we take them out of the jig we sand them, continue to sand them, and then we oil them, and the inside is always painted red . . . because they’re supposed to depict they’re alive and a part of the man and if you look inside a real kayak they are stained red as well . . .
Basically they would whitewash most of their hats and what they would do there, of course would be perfect to put on a pattern . . . the [whitewash] pigment that they got wasn’t natural to the Aleutian area, so it was a trade item and mainly the rich people would use that . . . What they used for paintbrush . . . I thought they had hair, you know just like a paintbrush has hair, but I was thinking too maybe they used grass ‘cause they wanted it quite stiff just to make those intricate little dots . . .
Then they would also put ivory and stuff on there, but I’m not an ivory carver, so I don’t put much ivory on there I put mostly beads . . . and then they added sea lion whiskers on there to show how successful of a hunter [you are] .
. . [we use] monofilament line because nowadays natives can’t have real sea lion’s whiskers . . .
So, these are the inserts [wooden shapes that fit in the jig or form] that make the hat the proper size for a medium hat . . . it actually shrunk the hat down by like two inches or maybe an inch, it will be two inches shorter, but it actually makes it narrower and again this was Andrew’s [Gronholdt, late master hat maker] design . . .
Audience: Why do you start with three-eights and then carve it down?
Patty Lekanoff-Gregory: Good question, we have to have the sturdiness of the hats . . . you have to have it three-eights-of-an-inch thick on the two side pieces . . . and you’ll have to have it for the center piece, otherwise it will be too flat, it’d be just like a piece of paper or pegboard. So those are supports . . .
Audience: What about maintenance?
Patty Lekanoff-Gregory: Maintenance? Just continue oiling them, yeah, and good question too . . . [if one] of them were broken, but they were sewn back together, so you know that the married man would have this hat for the rest of his life, of course he would start with the smaller one and probably give it to his younger brother, or son, or nephew and then he would always have that long one for the rest of his life . . .
Audience: What kind of oil do you put on?
Patty Lekanoff-Gregory: I use Tung oil or linseed oil. That works really good and it cures the wood, also it solidifies it, so it is a lot more stiffer of a wood. So, it works really good and what they used, my ancestors, probably, whale or seal oil, although I’m not sure, yeah?
Patty Lekanoff-Gregory: Wood is rare where I’m from, we don’t have trees and so to get wood we used driftwood.
To make this art, you know it was a very valued piece of utility that they used. And also, that including the kayaks, that too was very important, and, of course made out of wood, so driftwood. So, it was very important we save every piece . . .
Audience: Where can you get the type of wood that would work for a novice?
Patty Lekanoff-Gregory: Lumber mill, unless you know wood good enough and I’m sure Andrew [Gronholdt, late master hat maker] did go on the beach and get a piece of driftwood. That’s what they normally used, but I just go to the building supply and say “can I have a three-eights-of-an-inch thick, twenty-two inch wide, twenty-four inches long”, otherwise it is eighteen by eighteen for my full crown, yeah, and then you just ask.
And then there is a certain way that the grain goes and the grain on these hats [small to long visor] go lengthwise and on the full crown they go sideways, so you have to be careful on that.
Aron Crowell: And also it’s likely that the original were all made with volcanic pigments and, you know kind of rare earths of many different colors that are found around volcanic vents in the Aleutian Islands, so this was probably the source. These might have been, at least some of the paint was original type of pigment, so they have that kind of ochre shading. I don’t know about the green.
Patty Lekanoff-Gregory: That may be a trade item too.
Aron Crowell: Yeah.
Patty Lekanoff-Gregory: According to Lydia’s [Black] book she was saying that the reds, and the greens, and the blues, and the black were prominent and then if you could get yellow, but white was definitely a trade item.
[From the Smithsonian Spotlight public talk with Patty Lekanoff-Gregory, hosted by the Arctic Studies Center at the Anchorage Museum on 07/07/2011.]
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 Unangax^ 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, Unangax^ 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 Unangax^ 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 Unangax^ 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