Aleut workshop brings traditional visors to life

By Sam Friedman
Kodiak, Alaska (AP) Feb. 2010

Bentwood visors worn by Native Alaskans in many parts of coastal Alaska should be part of traditional wardrobe worn by the Kodiak Alutiiq Dancers, but for years the group has shared one visor due to the scarcity of the headwear.

That may change with a workshop by visiting Aleut artist Patricia Lekanoff-Gregory. Working at the National Guard Armory, Lekanoff-Gregory is teaching the dancers and anyone who wants to learn how to make their own visors.

Aleut and Alutiiq people have different words for the visors she said, but they have a great deal in common. She lives in Unalaska and has taught classes in most of southern Alaska, including on Woody Island.

She is part of a Native arts resurgence movement that promotes relearning traditional crafts.

Not long ago, most of the Native Alaskan visors left in the world sat in museum displays in Washington, D.C., and St. Petersburg, Russia. Contemporary artists had to study museum pieces to reproduce the hats.

The Kodiak workshop began Jan. 23. Two days later, the group was many hours into the process of sanding flat pieces of wood in preparation to bend them into the shape of a hat.

Lekanoff-Gregory brought with her pre-cut wooden hat outlines, and special machines called “jibs” for bending the wood. Visor shapes vary from short disks to tall triangular chief hats.

She credited her teacher, Andrew Gronholdt, with reviving visor art making, and creating many of the jibs she continues to use. Gronholdt died in 1998.

The visors can be made from a variety of woods including cottonwood, yellow cedar and Sitka spruce.

Not all of the Native groups who wore the visors had access to wood as bountiful as Kodiak’s Sitka spruce forests.

Lekanoff-Gregory said wooden hats were so valuable in traditional Aleut culture that they were worth three slaves – three times as much as a kayak in the Aleut economy.

Aleut people probably used urine to soften the wood and heated it over steaming rocks, Lekanoff-Gregory said. Today, Gronholdt’s method uses ammonia instead of urine, and she boils the wood in tubs instead of over rocks.

Traditionally, sea lion whiskers adorned the visors. The number of whiskers signified the wealth of the wearer. This tradition has changed as well. On Monday night the students sanded fishing line to approximate the look of whiskers. Boiling the line in metal tubes keeps it straight.

Contemporary artists may use the same dyes as Aleut and Alutiiq people. Lekanoff-Gregory uses octopus bile for blues and clay-based ochre for browns and yellows.

She said some of her students paint their visors with personal symbols, while others chose traditional Alutiiq designs from an art book or a set of traceable patterns left by Gronholdt.

JoAnn Holmes worked on her second visor Monday night. She previously made one while in Sand Point on the date Aug. 8, 2008, and chose to incorporate the infinity sign into her design because of all the eights in the date. She also included a volcano.

Rick Rowland chose a different kind of personal symbol for his hat. On Monday night he had already scratched a reflected image of the letter R for the two Rs in his initials. He came to the workshop because he plans to join the Alutiiq dancers.

“I’m going to dance, so I need a hat,” he said. “I’m dancing to inspire more men to join.”

Kodiak Alutiiq dancers’ founder Margaret Roberts said the dancers’ next performance is in late February or early March.