Two Southcentral museums purchase rare spruce-root hat

Posted: Wednesday, January 05, 2005

ANCHORAGE - A rare 19th-century Alaska Native spruce root hat adorned with beads and sea lion whiskers will stay in the state after its purchase by two Alaska museums.

The Alutiiq Museum of Kodiak and the Anchorage Museum of History and Art combined to buy the Alutiiq spruce root hunting hat from a Juneau family, which had offered the artifact Dec. 6 at a Bonhams and Butterfields Auction in San Francisco. The price was $160,250.

"This is the first one that is going to be here in Alaska," said Sven Haakanson Jr., executive director of the Alutiiq Museum.

The Alutiiq people traditionally lived between Southcentral Alaska and the Alaska Peninsula. Most were on Kodiak Island, America's second-largest island after Hawaii.

When the Russians conquered the island in 1784, they lumped the Alutiiq people under the name Aleut, the people who inhabited the Aleutian Islands, Haakanson said.

Artifacts such as the spruce root hat are important for distinguishing the Alutiiq culture, Haakanson said. He has had to travel to other parts of the country and even Europe to bring back information on Alutiiq history.

The hat is decorated with a painted design of an unknown creature. Haakanson said it's anthropomorphic, with both human characteristics and traits of animals, perhaps a bear or something from the sea.

The hat was made to be worn by a hunter. The painted design may represent a helper spirit who would bring the hunter luck and attract animals, Haakanson said.

The hat is adorned with shells of dentalium, a marine mollusk. The conical tubes are about 1.5 inches to 2 inches long. Beads, red cloth and sea lion whiskers also decorate the hat.

Web links

For more, go to Alutiiq Museum & Archaeological Repository:

Alaska Museum of History and Art:

The beads and dentalium shells were markers of elite status and were valuable trade items when the hat was made. Sea lion whiskers paid tribute to the animals and plants that provided for people.

"It is more than a beautiful object from our past, it is a symbol of an Alutiiq family, a rare and precious piece of our ancestors," Haakanson said.

The hat was originally owned by the Kashevaroff family of Juneau, who are descended from the Alutiiq people and Russian explorers. At one time, the hat was owned by the Rev. Andrew P. Kashevaroff, a Russian Orthodox priest in Juneau and the first curator of the Alaska Historical Library and Museum, now the Alaska State Museum.

The hat hung on a kitchen wall for 30 years and was stored in a trunk for another 30, Haakanson said.

"We're very lucky to even have it," he said.

Only a few 19th-century Alutiiq spruce root hats are known to exist, including specimens at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., the Amerind Foundation in Dragoon, Ariz., the Western Washington Historical Society in Tacoma and the National Museum of Finland in Helsinki.

The two Alaska museums obtained donations to make the purchase. Among the corporate donors were Koniag, Inc., Old Harbor Native Corp., Afognak Native Corp., and Shoonaq' Tribe of Kodiak, plus the Anchorage Museum Foundation and retired banker Ed Rasmuson.

Haakanson carried the hat on board a flight from Anchorage to Kodiak on Tuesday and said it will be on display there on Friday.

The hat will be exhibited for a year in Kodiak, then move for a year at the Anchorage Museum of History and Art, Haakanson said.

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