“bentwood hunting hat”
Language: Koniag Sugpiaq (Alaska Peninsula dialect)
Before dawn next morning the raven flew away over the sea…About midday they espied him flying toward the shore, carrying a whale.
—Anonymous, from “The Raven and His Grandmother,” 1903
Designs painted on bentwood hats that were worn by whalers and sea otter hunters summoned helping spirits that included the killer whale/wolf, raven, and giant eagle. This hat depicts a wolf’s face with down-turned mouth, long snout and nostrils, and crescent-shaped eyes. Ornaments of colored yarn and thread dangle from the eyes and pointed ivory ears stick out from the back of the hat. The ivory side panels may represent a bird’s wings. Sea lion whiskers attached in back are said to represent a tally of whales the owner had killed.
Region: Alaska Peninsula
Object Category: Hunting
Dimensions: Length 52cm
Accession Date: 1884
Source: William J. Fisher (collector)
Museum: National Museum of Natural History
Museum ID Number: E090444
Aron Crowell: [It is] from the Fisher collection, yeah, and he wrote about it that it was worn by sea otter hunters, at Karluk . . .
Audience: Does the length of your visor mean anything to the Sugpiaq people?
Andrew Abyo: Yes, actually when you’re very young, the boys from seven to ten years old, they would have a very short visor, like about this short right here and that was to signify they are novice hunters, or beginner hunters . . . actually there are over eleven different functions on this visor. And, I’d like to share them with you. Of course, it was to shield your eyes from the sun and glare of the water.
It also could be used as an emergency paddle if you lost or broke your paddle.
Every hunter made his own, so you could tell what tribe or region he was from, from the symbolism of the painting.
And, the ridge, actually right here [running along centerline on underside], for support, right. But, actually another purpose is: when the hunters wear the visor, everywhere that he looks, this is what he uses to aim his spears, his harpoons, and his atlatls. So, it helps him to aim.
For every one bead you see on a visor actually represents one successful kill. So, if you see a hunter with a visor with a lot of beads, you know he is a very good hunter, regular provider, right.
Let’s see, also, status and rank [is distinguished] with the painting and beads also . . .
But, it is also used as an effective camouflage. Say for instance the hunter would go for a seal. What he is going to do, actually he is going to wear the visor and hold his head down and hide the hunter’s face.
The animal is only going to see the circular spiral markings, like you see here on and they’ll think that they’re eyes. They will see the jagged marks here and think they are teeth. And [when they see] the whiskers of a sea lion or walrus, they will just think it is another animal. So, it is very effective camouflage. And from the profile, you can see it looks like a bird beak also, so a part of camouflage.
Also, can you imagine if you’re out in the ocean and you’re hunting with maybe thirty other hunters. And so, you need to communicate with them, and so this [visor] actually helps to amplify the voice also . . . It also project in the direction of the visor . . . So, very effective for communication and also when you’re outside too you see someone from far away you go like this [put it to your ear] to try and hear them, right. This actually works in the same manner. This will collect sound right here and channel it into my ear, so it amplifies also. So we had hearing aids. This is something they developed centuries ago.
So many things out of one, I would say object, but well to us today it’s more like artwork, right. But, to them [Sugpiaq in the past] it was all utilitarian. But even if it is, or anything was utilitarian, it was decorated to the highest degree and that was in respect for the animals, right. So, the bentwood visor is very multifunctional.
Dawn Biddison: Could you tell us what some of the patterns are, that are drawn on there?
Andrew Abyo: This here would actually represent a mouth [lowest black line on front of hat]. And you could see this represents a snout [design over the mouth], so then these volutes [crescent-shaped design on sides] here, they represent eyes and this would be for camouflage, right.
Audience: Is it just wood?
Aron Crowell: It is bentwood, but it has the walrus ivory pieces, a wing like piece on the side and it was interesting, to me that when Andrew was mentioning the eyes on the hunting hat, in this case there are those kind of eyes on the top of the side pieces, but then there’s also painted eyes and the painted mouth. On your hat you had the teeth which many of them do, but this one just has a straight line. And if you go around that said you can also see the snout of the animal that is depicted here it goes straight down and the curves a little bit to the side and then it has these ivory ears on the back, beautiful carving . . .
Dawn Biddison: What are those?
Andrew Abyo: These here? These are finely woven grass and hair [tassel on left side]. And I would imagine that it could be caribou hair. And, wow, it’s very intricate. I notice on the inside, here, stretching from here to here, there’s a string going across. And that would be to support, right here on the top [of the wearers head]. And this large bead here, actually, that I believe is Peking glass, which is very rare.
. . .
Aron Crowell: The other beads on there are also ones that we recognize from the nineteen century, here like the white glass one you can see they’re kind of irregular, they’re actually hand made beads and they are also probably Chinese. And they were mad by glassblowers by blowing a bulb of glass and then stretching the bulb out to a really long tube and cutting up the tube and so they are actually all made. Then rotate them in hot sand and that rounds of the edges and makes them smooth, but that’s why every single one is slightly different in shape. And, that you don’t see that now, beads are all made by machine and are all exactly the same.
[From the Smithsonian Spotlight public talk and individual discussion with Andrew Abyo hosted by the Arctic Studies Center at the Anchorage museum on 10/06/2011. Also participating: Aron Crowell, Dawn Biddison and Monica Shah (Director of Collection, Anchorage museum).]
Laurie Mulcahy: I also heard that there were, hunting hats, that you could tell from whalers’ hunting hats how many whales they had gotten, their rank, because there was a marking system on their hat.
Like notches. Did you hear that?
Larry Matfay: No, not in the hat but like my dad, he had notches and I did it too – notch in the knife. How many animals, like I got how many bears I skin with that knife. I lost one already in Karluk Lake a long time ago and I start another one.
Laurie Mulcahy: . . . Where would the story have come about the hat being marked?
Larry Matfay: I don’t know that. We didn’t see, I guess. They had that hat on quite a ways out [long time ago]. I think they know when the weather is nice and sunny [that] the reflection of the water on your eyes probably won’t hurt your eyes [if you wear a hat to protect them].
[From an oral history interview with Sugpiaq elder Larry Matfay, conducted in July 1986 with interviewer Laurie Mulcahy. Used by permission of the Alutiiq Museum and Archaeological Repository, Kodiak, Alaska.]