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Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History
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Department of Anthropology

Arctic Studies Center

Hunters from Unalaska wearing a bentwood hat (left) and a bentwood visor (right) Hunters from Unalaska wearing a bentwood hat (left) and a bentwood visor (right), 1827. Illustration by F.H. von Kittlitz. Courtesy of the Alaska State Library.

Unanga  men of the Aleutian Islands wore hunting hats and visors that were shaped from carved, boiled and bent planks of driftwood, intricately ornamented with painted lines and spirals, glass beads, walrus ivory figures and sea lion whiskers. These magnificent hats were practical headgear for kayak hunters and at the same time works of art that vividly expressed the spiritual connection between people and the creatures of the sea. The finest large hats were reserved for island chiefs and whalers, while men of lesser rank wore visors or short-billed hats. The Yup’iit, Sugpiat, and other peoples of coastal Alaska and Siberia created related styles of bentwood headgear, and the tradition is an ancient one; ivory hat ornaments up to 1500 years old have been found in archaeological sites from Kodiak Island to the Chukchi Sea.

Two contemporary Unanga  hat makers – Patricia Lekanoff-Gregory and Michael Livingston – spent a week in 2012 as artists-in-residence at the Arctic Studies Center in Anchorage. The two master artists worked with advanced apprentices Delores Gregory and Tim Shangin to examine bentwood hats and visors in the Living Our Cultures exhibition and Anchorage Museum collection and to demonstrate carving, bending, and decorative techniques to visiting students and the museum public.

The educational videos presented here provided detailed, step-by-step instructions on how to make a bentwood hat and information on the use and significance of these hats in the past and today to the peoples of the Aleutian Islands. There are also in-depth interviews with the artists and apprentices, providing first-hand information about the Aleutian Islands region and this important art form. To learn more about Unanga  culture, please visit the exhibition website Sharing Knowledge at where you will find information about all Alaska Native cultures and educational materials in the Resources section.

Participants in the Aleutian Islands bentwood hats artists residency, 2012
Participants in the Aleutian Islands bentwood hats artists residency, 2012. From left to right: Timothy Shangin, Patricia Lekanoff-Gregory, Delores Gregory and Michael Livingston. Photo by Wayde Carroll.


Introduction (1 video)

Meet the Artists (4 videos)

Making a Bentwood Hat: How-to Steps (4 videos)

Video 1

  • Step 1 | Wood: Selecting, Tracing & Cutting
  • Step 2 | Thinning the Wood
  • Step 3 | Boiling the Wood
  • Step 4 | Shaping the Hat

Video 2

  • Step 5 | Taking It Off the Jig
  • Step 6 | Tying a Support
  • Step 7 | Securing the Back
  • Step 8 | Repairing Cracks, Seams and Holes

Video 3

  • Step 9 | Sanding and Oiling
  • Step 10 | Stenciling and Painting
  • Step 11 | Adding Attachments
  • Step 12 | Adding the Chin Tie

Video 4

  • Step 13 | Preparing Imitation Whiskers
  • Step 14 | Attaching Whiskers and Beads

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