“Chief’s hat; decorated, closed top, long wooden hat”
Language: Unangam Tunuu (Eastern Aleut dialect)
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
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.
Patty Lekanoff- Gregory: What the designs means and stuff — we lost a lot of our culture as time went on. So for us to really remember things, you know is really difficult, but one thing that you can see that was really prominent was the spiral design and that’s your representation of water and, of course we’re surrounded by water on the Aleutian Pribilof Islands region . . . I keep trying to emphasize the respect of Andrew [Gronholdt, late master hat maker], that we do it proper and as close as we can to the Aleut design motif, and although we don’t know what they all meant .
. . the jaws were very popular, of course with the killer whale. So that would go on the base of the hat, you just put the design on there . . .
Audience: I remember reading Dr Lydia Black’s book; she talked about how she interpreted a lot of the designs as bird designs —
Patty Lekanoff-Gregory: Bird designs, yeah.
Audience: And I was wondering what you thought of that.
Patty Lekanoff-Gregory: Yeah, I agree. I didn’t study it that much, but a lot of them if you look at some of the pictures that they have like a circle and dot motif and those were to represent bird’s eyes according to Lydia Black and then I don’t see anything else round in my area besides bird’s eyes or eyes that would represent that. But, I know that the spiral were the water and then the floral motif . . .
Aron Crowell: Petal shaped designs and red inside and this is a very old hat it came to National Museum of the American Indian in 1925, but I’m sure it is much older than that originally and as you were mentioning these hats were just passed down from generation to generation.
But this is the full crowned hat [also known as closed crown hat], very high status type of hat.
Patty Lekanoff-Gregory: Yeah.
Aron Crowell: And it has the ivory carvings on each side, walrus ivory carvings and they have the spiral design . . . that are also kind of like wings. So, the bird imagery comes through that you were talking about.
Patty Lekanoff-Gregory: It looks like a whale’s tail.
Aron Crowell: On the back, yes, it looks like a whale’s tail design on the back and interesting it has this ivory piece on the back that holds the sea lion whiskers.
Patty Lekanoff-Gregory: And also to cover up the seam so you don’t see that, so that is really neat and intircate, yeah, and it looks like there’s something on the top that, of course broke off after time.
Aron Crowell: There might have been a little bird, or otter, or something that was on the top.
Patty Lekanoff-Gregory: And this one Lydia [Black] would call the whaler’s hat too . . . We still don’t know how they would do that [the conical shape of the full crowned hat], but it is really neat and I kind of try to adapt to how I see the carvings now, because now I have a few pictures of the inside of the hat. But, it also would have that brace part, a piece of branch that would brace in the back to hold it together, as well as the ivory piece in the very back.
Aron Crowell: This is a complex shape because it is very narrow in the front and then it goes up, so it is not symmetrical in profile.
Patty Lekanoff-Gregory: Right, yeah.
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.
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.
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.
[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: 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 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 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 Unangax^ 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 Unangax^ 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 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, 2003:123-43; 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