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Ancient Aleut Art of Making Bentwood Visors Showcased at Anchorage Museum

March 09, 2012|by Rhonda McBride | Channel 2 News

ANCHORAGE, Alaska — The late Steve Jobs was famous for his ability to combine beauty and function in devices like Apple’s iPhone, but this isn’t unique to the computer age. 

All you have to do is take a look at the Aleut bentwood visor, which is the focus of a weeklong workshop at the Anchorage Museum.  

Hundreds of years ago, hunters ventured out into the ocean in the Aleutian islands in qayaks, wearing wooden hats, called the “chagudux.” 

“When you first see these hats, we might think that they’re just a wooden hat, but they’re much better than that,”  says Michael Livingston, one of the master artists teaching the visor workshop.  

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Livingston has devoted his life to recreating the Aleutian islands culture of the qayak, the predecessor of the modern kayak. Livingston has also built replicas of early qayaks and paddled out into the ocean to demonstrate their engineering and seaworthiness. 

“I think Steve Jobs would have thought that an Aleut hunting hat was really an amazing thing. There’s so many things built into a single one of them,” said Livingston. 

Groups of students had a chance to watch Livingston and other artists work. When asked what they thought the hats were for, most said they thought hunters wore them to keep the sun out of their eyes.  

But they were surprised to learn that the hats were also used as camouflage.  The extended visors concealed the hunters’ faces, so seals would mistake them for other sea mammals.  

The shape of the hat also had an acoustic application. The visor worked as an amplifier and funneled sound directly to the qayaker’s ears. This helped the hunter stay keenly attuned to what was happening on the water, as well as hear the sounds of seals and other prey from a distance. 

Or, if the hunter wound up tossed in the water, the hat could be used like a paddle or flipper, propelling the qayaker to safety. 

“Unless you’re a really good qayaker, very few people can roll themselves upright with just your hand,” says Livingston. “But when you use your hat, your chagudux, you can gain a lot more surface area needed to right your qayak.” 

"We are reviving the art and proudly," says Patricia Lekanoff-Gregory, who learned to make visors from the late Andrew Gronholdt, whom she met when she worked in the schools in Unalaska.

“He used to call me a puppy, because I’d be following him around,” said Lekanoff-Gregory, who credits the Aleut elder for passing on a wealth of knowledge. Even though this visor-making was traditionally a man's job, Lekanoff-Gregory says she never worried about it, because she had her father's blessings to carry on the tradition. 

Not long before Gronholdt died, he asked her to help him finish a visor. 

“He bent on one side (of the hat) and says, ‘OK, you’re bending the other,’” said Lekanoff Gregory. “And he says,  ’You’re the new hat maker.’ And, you know, it’s a powerful feeling.” 

The hat itself is a powerful tool, like many of those that were part of the qayak culture. 

Aaron Crowell, who is director of the Alaska office of the Smithsonian Arctic Studies Center, showed the students the Aleut exhibit at the Anchorage Museum.  

He demonstrated a spear for catching ducks and other birds. It had three carved prongs on the end, to strike the bird and catch it in the neck or wing.    

“This is a technology that’s created completely from local resources,” said Crowell, “Not something from a globalized supply chain. I think there’s a great lesson in there about self-sufficiency and inventiveness.” 

Issac Miles, a student at Romig Middle School in Anchorage, who also happens to be of Aleut heritage, took that to heart.  

“I think it’s pretty impressive. Not a lot of people can survive and go out every day and catch their own food,” said Miles. 

The master artists spent a lot of time trying to help students understand the mindset of the ancient Aleuts and their relationship to the qayak.  

“It was alive,” said Lekanoff-Gregory. “The man, the qayak, and the hat are all one unit.”  

The hat wasn’t easy to make. Thin sections of driftwood were cut and then boiled in water for a half an hour, then bent over forms for two days, to put the curves in the hat. “

They also used a hand drill that was fashioned from a wooden bow. 

Hunters would later spend days painting and decorating the visors. The students were curious about why so much artistry was lavished on the hats, which were painted with pigments found in lava rock at various Aleutian islands. 

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