Down Under – Sea Hunters Hat | Collaboration with Scott Jensen

Hemlock (Hat), Yellow Cedar, Simulated Sea Lion Whiskers, Trade Beads, Beach Feathers, Acrylic Paint, Metal Stand


Thomas Stream: Winter

For both Thomas Stream and Scott Jensen there are few objects from the ancient Pacific Northwest Coast that inspire more awe and respect than the Aleut Hunting Hats.

For Thomas Stream, these noble hats embody the resourcefulness, skill, spirituality and artistry of his people, the Sun’aq Aleut. The Aleutian Island archipelago stretches twelve hundred miles from the southwest corner of Alaska, across the Bering Sea to Russia. The Aleutians are a volcanic chain linking North America to Asia and consist of three hundred islands. The islands are as beautiful as they are remote. They are windswept and barren, with most vegetation growing no higher than twelve inches. It can take a tree two hundred years to reach a height of five feet.  Most everything that sustained the Aleut came from the sea, and what came from the sea was fished or hunted by men in their bidarkas or kayaks. Survival depended upon a successful hunt and the Bering Sea/ North Pacific poses formidable risks. The Aleut enlisted the aid of spiritual powers to help insure a successful and safe hunt on the sea, and these hats were worn for practical and spiritual purposes. The hat was constructed from split, planed, and steam-bent driftwood planks, and adorned with sea lion whiskers, walrus ivory, and trade beads.

A man’s hat was as important as his boat and hunting tools. The unique shape of the hats offered protection from sun and rain, and possibly amplified sounds over the water. It was painted with his personal designs and symbols, and it was believed that the hat enabled the hunter to spiritually transform into his prey. The hats were also worn during ceremony.

Thomas Stream’s paintings are famed for their color and lines. The opaque pigments and flowing, undulating lines and patterns reference the painting style on the ancient hats. The Aleut culture was devastated in the 19th and 20th centuries due to enslavement by Russian, European and American fur traders hunting for sea otters. Much Aleut culture was lost. In his art, Thomas Stream’s use of the hat honors his people, their culture and their eternal connection to the their homeland. Thomas says, “I show love and honor through color and line”.

For Scott Jensen (Non-Indigenous/Adopted Tlingit), the Aleut Hunting Hat represents the pinnacle of engineering, skill and beauty on the Northwest Coast. Jensen approached Thomas Stream a few years ago, and asked him if he would be interested in painting a hat if he made one. The process happened over a few years, and once the hat was done he sent it to Thomas to paint.

Years ago Jensen learned the painstaking technique of crafting these hats from Bill Holm. Jensen is recognized  as one of the few masters of the technique, which is one of the most difficult in Northwest Coast art.  Unlike bending a box–which bends at straight angles–the hat must be bent in a bowed arc, an unnatural angle for a piece of wood. The ends must be brought together and meet perfectly at the back of the hat, while staying symmetrical. The wood must be planed extremely thinly in the areas where the lines bend, and this can lead to the hat splitting. After making four hats that did not come out, Jensen was finally able to bend the fifth without breaking.

Once he had the hat in hand, Stream created a full paper replica of the hat, showing the octopus and crab designs painted on it. He emailed this to Jensen, to show him the finalized design before painting. The spot prawn, Giant Pacific Octopus and Dungeness Crab are iconic Pacific Ocean sea creatures. Their natural ranges–from northern California to the Aleutian Islands–overlap, and they are all hunters as well as the hunted. They are perfect imagery for a sea hunter’s hat. Jensen acquired the trade beads from fellow artist Janet Walker, and they are types that would have been traded along the North Pacific coast in the past.