“Chief’s hat; decorated, closed top, long wooden hat”
Language: Unangam Tunuu (Eastern Aleut dialect)
This one has two [spiral ivory side pieces]. Maybe this person was very, very talented, and important. / One of the good hunters.
—Mary Bourdukofsky / Vlass Shabolin, 2003
Elders suggested that this elegant bentwood hat, which is ornamented with sea lion whiskers and a pair of ivory sidepieces (volutes), must have belonged to a chief, shaman, or exceptional hunter. Its multicolored lines, dots, spirals, and “sand dollar” designs are delicately painted in faded mineral pigments. The volutes may depict birds’ heads or wings topped with spiral eyes. A small animal, possibly a sea otter, crowns the ivory seam plate that runs down the back of the hat. Such hats were both rare and valuable, especially before Russian contact, when they were equal in value to a kayak or several slaves.
Region: Aleutian Islands, Alaska
Object Category: Hunting
Dimensions: Length 47.2cm
Accession Date: 1925
Source: Mrs. Thea Heye (donor)
Museum: National Museum of the American Indian
Museum ID Number: 144871.000
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.
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.]
Identification & decoration
Daria Dirks: It’s a hunter’s hat.
Vlass Shabolin: It’s almost the same style as the other two we looked at.
Maria Turnpaugh: Yes, the paint is almost the same as the others.
Daria Dirks: That’s the first time we’ve seen one like this.
Maria Turnpaugh: Usually they are just decorated.
Aron Crowell: Is this a carving on top? Is it an animal’s head?
Maria Turnpaugh: It’s probably an otter.
Mary Bourdukofsky: It’s carved ivory.
Maria Turnpaugh: They usually have one right [on the front of the hat in the center].
Daria Dirks: This is the first one we’ve seen with whiskers on the side and not just the back.
Aron Crowell: Are these sea lion whiskers?
Vlass Shabolin: Yes, these are sea lion whiskers.
Mary Bourdukofsky: I wonder how old this one is.
Daria Dirks: I just love this spiral design.
Aron Crowell: Do these spiral pieces on the side represent anything?
Mary Bourdukofsky: They are supposed to but I don’t know what they mean. This person has two so maybe they were very talented or important.
Vlass Shabolin: One of the good hunters.
Daria Dirks: Maybe one of the chiefs … or a shaman.
Vlass Shabolin: The shaman’s hat had to be a little bit fancier. (1)
Mary Bourdukofsky: There’s the tail of a halibut or a whale design . . . What if this belongs to a whaler captain’s kayak? They used kayaks to hunt for whale, [maybe] that’s why they represent the whale tails.
Aron Crowell: Did people ever talk about the whalers when you were growing up?
Mary Bourdukofsky: A long time ago they used to have famous stories, but I hardly listened to them
Maria Turnpaugh: I didn’t either
Broken Front Piece
Vlass Shabolin: The front piece of this one is broken too.
Maria Turnpaugh: It’s been repaired, but I don’t think it was repaired when they were making it.
Vlass Shabolin: It was repaired after they found it.
Aron Crowell: Does that look like sinew or some kind of root that they used to sew that back together?
Daria Dirks: The stitches are sinew or something.
Mary Bourdukofsky: It’s sinew.
[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 called an angnakg^um saleg^uu [chief’s hat] or tuukg^um saleg^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.”