The hat is made in the characteristic manner from a single piece of driftwood, possibly the drifted Californian oak which the Aleut craftsmen preferred. The wood was finely planed with a knife until it became exceptionally light and thin. It was then bent into shape with steam, and the single cut in the wood at the rear of the hat was sewn together. A bentwood back brace is attached to the interior of the hat. The present hat also retains its chin-strap and the cord brace which strengthens the tip of the exceptionally fine visor. The painted design of this hat is of the so-called “parallel line” style, with curvilinear and spiral motifs occurring in places within the painted bands of red, black and green, which are alternately wide and narrow. The pigments on an old hat such as the present example are derived from plant and mineral materials; hats made later in the 19th century are often decorated with commercial paints. Whilst the meaning of the designs has been largely lost, it seems likely that the hats’ beauty was regarded as pleasing to the hunted animal, and that the prey might give itself to the hunter with the most elaborate hat. The present hat is closely related to several very old examples of known provenance; see, for instance, a hat in the Peter the Great Museum of Anthropology and Ethnography, St Petersburg (inv. no. 536-13), which was collected in 1804 on Kodiak Island by the Russian Naval Commander Iurii Fedorovich Lisianskii.
Black notes that “bentwood closed-crown hats with long visors were apparently rare and we do not know directly under what circumstances they were used. However, their elaborateness and rarity, as well as the sole extant representation of such a hat being worn at sea [a painting by Mikhail Tikhanov, artist aboard the Imperial Russian Naval circumnavigation voyage of 1818] suggests that it was, if not a type of war helmet, then a whaler’s hat.” (Black, Glory Remembered: Wooden Headgear of Alaska Sea Hunters, Juneau, 1991, p. 24). Whaling was an activity shrouded in mystery and ritual, “conceptualized as a secret, spiritually dangerous enterprise […on Kodiak Island it] was practiced individually with a single man braving unimaginable dangers on behalf of his community […]” (ibid., p. 79). It was closely associated with war; in places “whaling was equated not with hunting but with the killing of an enemy in battle.” (Ibid.). These rare hats were evidently symbols of great prestige and rank, worn by only the most highly respected men: chiefs, whalers, and valiant hunters. Their rarity is doubtless connected in part with their great cost; the price of a hat “exceeded that of a kayak” (ibid.) and “‘even in the olden times’ [was equivalent to the price of] one to three slaves” (Varjola, et al., The Etholen Collection: the Ethnographic Alaskan Collection of Adold Etholen and his Contemporaries in the National Museum of Finland, Helsinki, 1990, p. 173).
With these beautiful hunting hats the Aleut created a unique art form which stand as an eloquent testimony to “the unlimited power a man desires, calls upon, and makes his own, when he is compelled to face an unimaginable danger in war or in the hunt, and hopes to come home a victor.” (Black, ibid., p. 80).
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