Pacific Postcards

The History of Aleuts Through a Hunting Hat

The History of Aleuts Through a Hunting Hat by Camryn Cook

     In 1733, Danish explorer Vitus Jonassen Bering set sail on Russia’s Great Northern Exhibition. In search of a land bridge connecting Asia and North America, Bering got caught up in a storm and in 1741, he stumbled upon the Aleutian Islands in the southwestern archipelago of the Alaskan peninsula. These islands were home to the Aleutians, a population of no more than 15,000 spread thinly across numerous islands. 

     The remote location of the Aleutian islands left the Alaskan natives with few ways to maintain their lifestyle. Relying on hunting as a means of securing food and resources, the Aleuts gave high praise to those skilled enough to keep their society running. The hunting hat, a symbol of success and power, was popular among the skilled natives who worked in the water to keep their communities afloat. By tracing the story of a single hat, a timeline can be created that includes the growth of Pacific culture and social structure, Russian arrival and colonization, and the ultimate destruction of the previously sustainable Aleutian life. Contextualizing these symbols of accomplishment through the analysis of cultural history and colonization allows for a better understanding of the native Alaskan cultures and their change over time.

     The hats adorned by the Aleut hunters are made using a single piece of wood about half an inch thick. The wood is steamed and cut to shape, placed in boiling water, then removed and placed on the forms overnight. At 36 centimeters or about 14 inches in length and holding a slightly rounded cone shape, the hats are then laced together in the back with an ivory plate covering the seam. After the hats are dry, they are adorned with glass trade beads and the whiskers of sea lions. The sea lion whiskers placed running down the back seam of the hat indicate how many seals one Aleut caught in a single hunt (Smithsonian). On the base, traditional pigments are used to paint fine lines and rosettes, covering the wood with the Aleut colors of red, black, and yellow. At the National Museum of Natural History in 2003, Mary Bourdukofsky, Maria Turnpaugh, and a few other remaining Aleut elders discussed the use of such hunting hats. In a conversation recorded by the Smithsonian, Bourdukofsky said that she thought that “after the hunting is done, when they start the ceremonial dances, maybe that’s when [the hunters] put [the hats] on.” She questioned if the Aleuts tackled “all that rough sea with these fancy things” or if they were used purely for ceremonial purposes. Maria Turnpaugh, an Aleut who has made several hunting hats herself, confirmed that these valuable hats were worn by hunters while out in the Pacific because they were believed to reflect the glare of the water. They made their way from water to land and were used to adorn individuals in community celebrations. In this way, the hats hold great prestige and continue to acknowledge the accomplishments of each hunter. 

     From a very young age, Aleut males were trained in building and navigating baidarkas, which are canoes of varying sizes covered in animal skins. In the spring and fall seasons, skilled Aleut hunters would venture out in their baidarkas to catch sea otters by hurling their spears into the water. Bringing them back to the village, the women and children would harvest the fur, meat, and any other part of the animal they might find useful. Status in Aleut societies was strongly connected to one's ability to manage and distribute resources. Because of this, hunters became the most highly valued members of Aleut society (Vinkovetsky 65).

     Like many other indigenous communities at the time, the Aleutians came into contact with foreign explorers. Bering’s voyage, which landed on the Aleutian islands in 1741, was the beginning of the Aleuts depletion and the Russian’s growing physical and economic presence in North America. In Making Sea Cucumbers out of Whales’ Teeth, Edward D. Melillo outlines the arrival of Europeans in Fiji and what effect this had on Fijian culture and resources. After the decline of sandalwood extraction, Westerners were looking for a new means of economic profit. “From the late 1820s through the 1840s, dozens of New England merchants … built their fortunes upon Fijian [sea cucumbers] (Melillo 456).” Over time, the operations on native Fijian land evolved into complex and elaborate processes that involved thousands of native laborers and later proved detrimental to the health of Fijian natives and ecosystems. While the exploitation of sea otters in Northwestern Alaska doesn’t involve the same groups of people, all exploration and colonization throughout the Pacific followed the same imperialistic pattern. Using this as a model, it is clear to see how the Russian presence in Alaska pans out and just what role Aleut hunters have in this process. 

     With the new age of exploration came new opportunities for Russians to capitalize on their discoveries. When the few remaining explorers from Bering’s voyage returned to Siberia, they told of the abundance of fur-bearing animals they encountered in the Alaskan Pacific. Voyage naturalist Georg Steller praised the Alaskan pelts they brought back, saying “The gloss of their hair surpasses the blackest velvet (Igler 105).” Like the North Americans in Fiji, the Russians returned to the small Alaskan islands with many Siberian hunters and began the process of exploiting Native Americans for their labor and resources. Instead of sea cucumbers, however, it was sea otters. The Russians knew that the pristine Alaskan furs would fetch high prices in both the Chinese and European trade markets. Once they realized that the Siberian laborers they brought from Russia were no match for the Aleut hunters, they pulled out their labor and commanded the Aleutians to overhunt the sea otters. By deploying observers on the water and taking Aleuts hostage, the Russians created “brutal relations with their conscripted native hunters (Igler 107)” and the Aleuts were forced into “a state of abject slavery (Igler 106).” Receiving wages in the form of food, trade goods, and tobacco, Aleut hunters “viewed their involvement as the best option among markedly diminished choices (Igler 109).” After colonialism had put the native Alaskan community in crisis, working for the Russians offered the hunters a means of survival. 

     This capitalization on the Aleut culture brought the Russians great monetary success. With an eye for capitalism, the Russian-American fur trade was organized around the exclusivity of the sea otters and the skilled labor market they had access to with the Aleut hunters. In contrast to the Russians' success, the Aleuts faced the same consequences as the Fijians with the arrival of the North Americans. Between 1741 and 1800, the Aleut population dropped by nearly 80% leaving just over 2,000 natives alive and on their indigenous islands (Vinkovetsky 62). 

     The prominence of hunting in native Alaskan history shaped how Aleutian culture both thrived and deteriorated. To better understand the society, looking at artifacts such as hunting hats provides context around both the local culture and the outsiders' ideas of the native peoples. With the common perspective of foreigners on native cultures being that they were primitive and uncivilized, the signs of advanced societal organization and processes prove that Aleutians were just the opposite. Through hunting and strategic use of resources, the Aleuts created a self-sufficient society. 

     After only a few decades of Russian presence on the Aleutian Islands, “The pre-contact culture of the Aleuts was almost completely eradicated, along with their traditional economy (Vinkovetsky 62).” Because of this, it is difficult to paint a full picture of the Aleutian culture pre-colonization. What can be observed, however, is the profound impact that the Russians had on daily life on the Aleut islands. When the Europeans came into contact with the Fijian culture, they realized that the indigenous groups had access to an abundance of a resource that, while they didn’t find it appealing in their own culture, they knew other people valued (Melillo 455). As a result, they took advantage of the culture and indigenous labor for the pure purpose of capital gain, having no respect for the raw materials of the goods they were manufacturing or the culture they were destroying. In the Alaskan Pacific, the process was quite similar. The Russians saw the abundance of furs and a group of people who could collect them, so with little respect for the rich culture that existed long before their arrival, their minds went straight to the ideas of money and power. As a result, the Aleuts lost most of their population, traditional culture, and societal structure. Sea otters also became scarce over time. Not only did this run the Alaskan fur industry to a gradual stop, but it nearly eliminated one of the Aleut's most crucial and esteemed resources.

     The Aleut hunting hat has provided a way to understand the progression of Aleutian history. As a symbol of individual accomplishment, the hats serve to acknowledge those who made life on remote Alaskan islands possible. The exploitation of this valuable resource by Russian explorers follows a pattern of imperialism that wiped out indigenous cultures all over the Pacific. As American colonists observe how foreign powers come to dominate pacific indigenous groups for economic gain, they follow by lead and thus begin a westward expansion that wipes out what little indigenous diversity remained on the west coast.

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                                                               Works Cited

Hunting Hat. 1872, Smithsonian Institution, Aleutian Islands, Alaska, United States, North  


Igler, David. “Chapter 4: The Great Hunt.” The Great Ocean: Pacific Worlds from Captain Cook 

          to the Gold Rush, Oxford University Press USA - OSO, 2013, pp. 99–128. 

Melillo, Edward. “Making Sea Cucumbers Out of Whales’ Teeth: Nantucket Castaways and 

          Encounters of Value in Nineteenth-Century Fiji,” Environmental History 20 (2015): 449–474

Vinkovetsky, Ilya. Native Americans and the Russian Empire, 1804–1867, University of  

          California, Berkeley, Ann Arbor, 2002. ProQuest,     = 
          theses/native-americans-russian-empire-1804-1867/docview/251748372/se-2?     accountid=14749.

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