“Chief’s hat; decorated, closed top, long wooden hat”
Language: Unangam Tunuu (Eastern Aleut dialect)
Hunting hats were symbols of accomplishment and prestige in classical Unangan society. Glass trade beads, an ivory seam plate, and the whiskers of large, old sea lions decorate this hat. Fine lines and rosettes were painted on the hat with traditional pigments.
Region: Aleutian Islands, Alaska
Object Category: Hunting
Object Type: Hunting hat
Dimensions: Length 36cm
Accession Date: 1872
Source: Vincent Coyler
Museum: National Museum of Natural History
Museum ID Number: E011377
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: 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.
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 saved 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. . . .
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. . . [they were also] stained red on the inside 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.
[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.
Vlass Shabolin: Inglakuun athog^kaluu.
Daria Dirks: Is that seal [whisker]?
Vlass Shabolin: Yes, each whisker indicates how many seals he got at the seal hunt.
Mary Bourdukofsky: They decorated it with feather too or hair.
Vlass Shabolin: Fox hair or reindeer.
Mary Bourdukofsky: These are Russian beads.
Vlass Shabolin: We still have those blue ones on St. Paul, too. By the hospital, when we were building, we dug some out.
Maria Turnpaugh: This is ivory [down seam at back].
Mary Bourdukofsky: Yes, those hats always have ivory, either on the back or the sides, as decoration.
This one has it in the back. And always decorated with sea lion whiskers and beads.
Daria Dirks: No [volute] on this one. One of my cousins at home found a volute in a dig. It’s an ivory piece that they put in the back or the side I think.
Mary Bourdukofsky: Usually you have it on the side. That must have had it, something fancy, but it’s gone.
Maria Turnpaugh: It was probably a special thing that they were allowed to use, because some of them don’t have that.
Mary Bourdukofsky: Maybe they earned it.
Mary Bourdukofsky: That’s the Aleut colors—red, black and there used to be yellow too. Maybe it was yellow someplace but it faded.
Daria Dirks: Did your dad ever say anything about how they made the colors?
Maria Turnpaugh: They’d use plants and—
Vlass Shabolin: Berries, salmon berries, anything that—
Mary Bourdukofsky: Blueberries.
Vlass Shabolin: Anything that they could get color out of they used.
Maria Turnpaugh: A lot of the flowers, irises.
Vlass Shabolin: Yes, a lot of the flowers, they boil them.
Mary Bourdukofsky: You know that volcano ash, it’s reddish-brown. I think they used that. I bet they used quite a bit of that on there.
Vlass Shabolin: Grind it, make it like paste, and then use it for paint.
Aron Crowell: Are you talking about red ocher?
Mary Bourdukofsky: Yes.
Aron Crowell: How about the process of making them—how are they shaped?
Maria Turnpaugh: I’ll tell you. I make them. You get a piece of wood about that thick [approximately half an inch], and you wet them, steam them—they’re really soaking. Then you lay them down, and you have a pattern, the whole pattern flat, and then you saw that out. Then you get the chisel and start chiseling, and you get it down to that thin [quarter of an inch]. You have to be really careful when you get it that thin, because my daughter bumped one like that, and it just split. It happened before it was painted, it’s really fragile.
Daria Dirks: Before they paint it, I remember seeing them putting it in boiling water, how long do you—
Maria Turnpaugh: They do put them in boiling water and steam it.
Daria Dirks: For how long?
Mary Bourdukofsky: Overnight.
Maria Turnpaugh: No, you do it for about an hour or so.
Mary Bourdukofsky: In Fairbanks they did it overnight. They said if you don’t soak it enough, it cracks.
Maria Turnpaugh: But if you’ve got it thin enough, you don’t have to soak it that long. It has to be wet when you start, but when you get it done it’s about that thin, and you put it back in the water and steam it and then we have these forms, it takes two people to put them on there.
Daria Dirks: It has to be done fast too, I remember.
Maria Turnpaugh: Fast and clamp it. You let that dry overnight.
Mary Bourdukofsky: In Fairbanks they use a bowl [as a mold], a stainless steel bowl and clamps.
Maria Turnpaugh: We had just wooden molds that Andrew Gronholdt made.
Mary Bourdukofsky: You drill a hole in the back and you lace it up to hold it like that after you bend it. How did you put yours together in the back? Do you glue it?
Maria Turnpaugh: We didn’t lace ours together, we just overlapped them and glued them like that. But there’s another band. You put on the inside where you put it together, and then the seam is really tight. And then you could put this [ivory brace on seam at back].
Aron Crowell: So the seam is underneath that ivory plate.
Mary Bourdukofsky: Yes.
Maria Turnpaugh: And then this one, there’s a little piece that goes around the edge there [of bill] on the inside, probably to keep its shape.
Aron Crowell: A reinforcing piece on the inside?
Maria Turnpaugh: In the front rim.
Daria Dirks: After they dried it then they put the colors on right after?
Mary Bourdukofsky: Yes, it has to be dry.
Aron Crowell: The hats that people are making now, that’s just come back in recent years?
Mary Bourdukofsky: Yes.
Aron Crowell: Do you recall seeing any of the really old hats in the villages?
Mary Bourdukofsky: I can’t recall.
Maria Turnpaugh: This man that made them, he studied for a long time trying to figure out how to do it. He’d read and read. Andrew Gronholdt. He’s not living now. He made just beautiful hats.
Aron Crowell: Was he the first person to bring back this tradition?
Mary Bourdukofsky: No, I don’t think so. They started in Chignik and Fairbanks.
Maria Turnpaugh: Andrew Gronholdt started a long, long time ago, before he started teaching. He made his own, he’d experiment. He really studied a long time. He had given them to the Unalaska people, but there’s certain people that keep them.
Daria Dirks: Ann May Corker, she learned from my cousin in Unalaska how to do this, and she teaches kids. Usually the higher grades like sixth, seventh and up.
Maria Turnpaugh: That’s where I took my class, when she was teaching.
[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. According to Mary Bourdukofsky and Vlass Shabolin, this type of highly decorated hat is also called an angnakg^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 finely crafted hat was purchased for the Smithsonian in 1868 by Vincent Colyer. Even at that date, Colyer noted, it was an old style that was no longer made.(4) The hat bulges out to the sides and is therefore slightly wider than most. It is encircled with precisely painted but time-worn bands of red, black, and green, with the addition of rosette designs at the ears and petals or leaves on a field of red on the back.
A narrow plate of ivory, into which sea lion whiskers are inserted, covers the seam. Medium and large-sized trade beads of blue and white glass—imported by the Russian-American Company from China for the Alaskan trade—are tied to the ivory back plate and front of the hat. Underneath there is a sinew chin strap, cross-ties to strengthen the long visor, and a wooden strip to reinforce the rim.
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.(5) 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.(6) 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.
(7) 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.(8) Colored minerals found in lakes and the vicinity of volcanoes provided many of the pigments that were used to make the paints.(9) 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).(10) The finished hats were both rare and valuable, especially before Russian contact, when they were equal in value to a kayak or several slaves.(11)
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.(12)
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 1991:66-67
5. Black 1991:36-41; Ivanov 1930
6. eg.. Bergsland and Dirks 1990:107, 331
7. Black 2003:128-29; Langsdorff 1993:II17
8. Black 1991; Ivanov 1930; Liapunova 1996:218-25
9. Beaglehole 1967:467, Hrdlicka 1945:102, Dall 1878:96, Hudson 1992:146; Merck 1980:66, 173
10. Black 1991, 2003; Jochelson 1933:26; Krenitsyn and Levashev 1988:248
11. Black 1991:67; Veniaminov 1984:269
12. Black 2003:141