What if this belongs to a whaling captain, because they used kayaks to hunt for whales? That’s why they represented the tail of a whale here.
—Mary Bourdukofsky, 2003
This hat belonging to a whaler or chief has a walrus ivory side piece topped with a spiral eye and carving of a bird. Eyes, “wings,” and other abstract mask-like features of hunting hats probably represent thunderbirds or killer whales, potent animals believed to be sources of spiritual power. The tail of a diving whale is painted on the hat’s bill and sea lion whiskers decorate the back. Large Russian trade beads decorate the bill and a string of small beads dangles from the crown. The red and black bands appear to have been painted with traditional mineral pigments.
Region: Aleutian Islands, Alaska
Object Category: Hunting
Dimensions: Length (hat) 25cm, (whiskers) 57cm
Accession Date: 1925
Source: George Gustav Heye (seller)
Museum: National Museum of the American Indian
Museum ID Number: 144870.000
Mary Bourdukofsky: This is a chief’s hat.
Vlass Shabolin: It’s got the extended sea lion [whiskers]..
Mary Bourdukofsky: That’s extended whiskers, tied.
Daria Dirks: He was a good hunter.
Vlass Shabolin: He’s got a lot of hatch marks, a lot of whiskers. This was for somebody important. It’s even got beads on it.
Daria Dirks: I think it’s missing something on top of here.
Vlass Shabolin: I think they just made a hole and put a bead into it. Just put a bead in there for a little more decoration.
Maria Turnpaugh: This is narrower than the other ones we’ve seen. The other ones were wider in the middle here.
Mary Bourdukofsky: And longer [brim]. This is the longest I’ve ever seen.
Vlass Shabolin: Nothing on the inside. I thought it would have that reinforcement on it.
Mary Bourdukofsky: I was wondering how he wore it. There’s no place for a string [chin strap]. Maybe this is just for looks.
Maria Turnpaugh: But look how worn it is.
Daria Dirks: This has colors on it too—red, blue, black, green. It’s beautiful.
Aron Crowell: Does the paint look a little bit different in design?
Mary Bourdukofsky: Yeah, it does.
Maria Turnpaugh: You see that design in lots of things.
Daria Dirks: The spiral, yes. I wonder what it represents.
That’s almost like a little whale’s tail or maybe that’s part of the shape of their arrow in the back.
Maria Turnpaugh: You don’t very often see paint like that.
Mary Bourdukofsky: What if this belongs to a whaling captain’s kayak, because they used kayaks to hunt for whale. That’s why they represented the tail of a whale.
Daria Dirks: Oh, yes. What’s that they would use to poison them—monkshood?
Mary Bourdukofsky: On their spears.
Daria Dirks: On the tip.
Aron Crowell: This cord that runs down the center, this is unusual isn’t it?
Mary Bourdukofsky: That’s for beads.
Aron Crowell: The volute is beautiful. It’s colored with beads.
And those red beads with the white centers, they call them Cornaline d’Aleppos. They came to Alaska in the 1840s. “White hearts” they are also called. And these [blue beads on volute and tope beads down front of hat] are wire-wound Russian or Chinese beads. These faceted blue ones [bottom beads down front of hat] were made in Bohemia starting in the 1840s as well. The smaller ones are very irregular, because they were handmade from stretched out glass tubes rather than machine made. So I’d say this is a relatively old set of beads on here.
Maria Turnpaugh: Yes, they do look like really old beads.
Daria Dirks: So you think the beads might have come from Russia or China?
Aron Crowell: I’m sure that for the most part these are Russian trade beads that were made in China and Europe. The main places they were made were Italy and Bohemia, which is now Czechoslovakia, and then some beads were made in Russia we think.
Daria Dirks: What kind of bird is this?
Mary Bourdukofsky: Ptarmigan?
Vlass Shabolin: No, a ptarmigan is not a water bird.
Aron Crowell: Is that carved separately and then tied on?
Mary Bourdukofsky: Yes it is.
Mary Bourdukofsky: Sluukan [seagull].
Vlass Shabolin: The wings are longer than a seagull’s wings. It’s some kind of bird that does live on the ocean.
Maria Turnpaugh: Albatross?
Vlass Shabolin: That’s what I’m thinking, albatross. There’s a lot of them on the ocean there. When we were out fishing, there’s a whole flock of them all the time.
[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 includes discussion of a similar chief’s hat 144871.000, which was examined just prior to this one.
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 has a finely-carved ivory sidepiece (volute) topped with the carving of a bird. A matching volute was probably fastened to the other side but is now missing. The hat is painted in bands of black and red, with a spray of sea lion whiskers in back. Large Chinese-made glass trade beads decorate the front and back, and a string of smaller beads dangles from the crown.
Anthropologists have suggested that the imagery of Unangan hunting hats was connected to beliefs about human beings changing into birds or killer whales.(4) Many Aleutian Islands tales tell of putting on animal skins or 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 appear as birds in the eyes of 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.
(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, 2003:123-43; Chirikov 1988:138; Coxe 1966:151; Jochelson 1933:10; Krenitsyn and Levashev 1988:248; Laughlin 1980:57; Liapunova 1996:218-25; 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