boat-shaped, with black and red pigments, the basin with human face carved in relief, featuring upturned, almond-shaped eyes outlined with "goggles," a broad nose with pierced, round nostrils, and a downturned, crescent-shaped mouth, flanked fore and aft with a pair of birds, the perimeter with attached appendages, including fish, birds, a pair of hands with truncated thumbs, a pair of flippers, a leg and a forearm, fine tool markings overall, most appendages with orange and black inscription, L579
Length: 18¼ in. (46.3 cm.)
Collected from the Yukon River delta by Joseph Chilberg in 1898.
Brown, Steven, ed., Spirits of the Water, 2000, p. 154, fig. 117, illustrated
The Menil Collection, Houston, TX, April - August 2000
Further details
The Yupik speaking Eskimo people of Southwestern Alaska lived in a mostly low lying landscape devoid of trees and dominated by water. The area is rich in migratory animal and bird life as well as resident fauna. This Yupik world is inhabited by a host of spirits which manifest themselves to the people through the natural environment and through dreams.

Masks were carved to personify the spirits and to show the peoples' respect and dependence upon the animal and natural world. The masks, while signifying the fauna, flora and natural forces, were inseparable from the songs and dances that were composed to accompany them. Because wood was a scarce commodity, driftwood from the sea or from the great rivers of the Yupik homeland was horded for future use including mask making. The masks are frequently small or composites sewn or pegged together. The addition of appendages is very common in Yupik masks. The masks could be danced solo or with their mate (if they were part of a pair) or with a host of other masks. One can only imagine the effect the masks and music had as they were performed in the close quarters of the communal men's house lit only by seal oil lamps.

Prior to the arrival of Euro-Americans, the Yupik of adjacent villages would gather together in the late Fall and Winter to hold dances to honor the spirits and to ask their intervention for continued good fortune in the hunt and harvest as well as to petition for favorable weather. Masks were brought out and danced as part of these ceremonies. Most of the masks were danced only once or for one ceremonial season. After they were done, depending on the area or type of mask, they would be given to children, burned or put out in the weather to go back to the elements. At a later time the masks were sold or traded to collectors. Others of them were picked up from their resting places in the environment by curiosity seekers.

The Yupik peoples' conversion to Christianity was swift and often included the refutation of masked dancing or any form of dancing. The teachings indicated that the masks themselves were wrong and should be forgotten and not spoken about. By the 1920s most Yupik villages had forgone the use of masks. Today the masks are found in museum collections around the world. Among the Yupik people there is a growing cultural interest in their forms of dance including the use of masks.

Peter L. Corey
Sitka, Alaska
November 8, 2002

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