Diameter: 24.000 cm
Room 26: North America
Twined whaling hat
Nuu-Chah-Nulth, 18th century
From Vancouver Island, British Columbia, North America
A Thunderbird catching a whale
The hat is made from twined bulb-topped cedar bark, spruce root and surf grass. The few surviving Nuu-Chah-Nulth whaling hats, from British Columbia, represent one of the few recorded figurative basketry traditions from North America before contact with Europe.
The story represented on the hat tells of a Thunderbird, a giant transformational creature, catching a whale. The story was perhaps first recorded by James Swan, in Neah Bay for the Smithsonian Institution in the nineteenth century. The Thunderbird 'lives on the highest mountains, and his food consists of whales. When he is in want of food he puts on a garment consisting of a bird's head, a pair of immense wings, and a feather covering for his body; around his waist he ties the Ha-hek-to-ak, or lightning fish [serpent]... The T'hlu-klut, having arrayed himself, spreads his wings and sails over the ocean till he sees a whale. This he kills by darting the Ha-hek-to-ak down into its body, which he then seizes in his powerful claws and carries away into the mountains to eat at his leisure'.
This hat is associated with the dukes of Leeds, and perhaps therefore with Francis Osborne, 5th duke (1751-99) who was Secretary of State at the Foreign Office at the time of the Nootka Sound crisis of 1790, which resulted in the eventual extinction of Spanish claims to what is now British Columbia.
J.C.H. King, First peoples, first contacts: (London, The British Museum Press, 1999)