Nothing gives me more pleasure than to educate people about Yup'ik masks, and about the cultural beliefs that are embodied within them. It's an extremely fascinating and personal subject for me.
Unfortunately, much of what Yup'ik people once knew about themselves and their art has been lost to the world—thanks primarily to the wrong-headed cultural assimilation practices that took place throughout much of the 19th and 20th centuries.
Still, I can teach people about things that I learned first-hand from my family, as well as from a range of museums and cultural institutions where I've been able to conduct research on Yup'ik artifacts and culture.
I hope that some of what I can share with you will be interesting and useful to you.
Traditional Yup'ik masks were extremely varied both in how they looked and in what they represented.
But no matter what they looked like, essentially, Yup'ik masks were designed to tell stories, educate, entertain, pass on traditional knowledge, and to help in ceremonial prayers.
The meaning behind each mask was personal to the mask’s creator, and told the story that he or she wanted to tell. They could be telling the story of an animal for the purpose of educating others, they could be telling the story of a particular situation, of a family member ... or just about anything.
Often when used for ceremonial purposes, it is thought that the masks were used, for instance, as a means to ask a particular animal to come back the next season, to ask that the weather cooperate, or to give respect and honor to members of the spirit world.
Yup'ik masks were at the heart of Yup’ik spiritual and social life, and served the practical value of transmitting important cultural knowledge. Typically, the ceremonies they were used in involved both human and supernatural participants, and were a vital method for helping to make the unseen world visible.
Elders tell us that some masks were more powerful and important than others. Some had to be wrapped carefully before a performance so that the animals they represented would not be offended by humans looking at them before it was time to do so. Other very powerful masks were not to be left in a room alone for fear that by doing so, the power of the mask would be unleashed in an uncontrollable manner.
In all cases, masks were to be treated with the greatest respect and with the utmost of care.
Yup'ik masks were generally carved, painted, and decorated elaborately. Typically, they were created from composite pieces carved from wood, stained with clays, and decorated with feathers, hides, beads, teeth, and other organic materials.
A Yup'ik mask could range in size from anything as small as 3-inch finger masks, to structures weighing twenty pounds or more, that hung from ceilings, or which needed to be supported by multiple people. Many had various appendages attached to them, which helped to enhance the story being told.
Masks could be made by men or women, but mostly they were made by men during the long Alaskan winter. Men gathered driftood during the summer months and when winter came, they would be ready to carve.
Shamans would oversee the creation of masks destined for ceremonial use, and would give carvers instructions as to what needed to be made. Still, carvers were free to contribute their own unique creative interpretations, and were in fact, chosen by the shamans to carve the masks not just because of their skill in carving, but because of their creative expertise.
Click on the links below for more information and to see examples of Yupik masks.
I came across the stunning example of a spirit mask shown in the photo to the right when I was doing my research on Yup'ik masks and artifacts at the Smithsonian
It was the personal spirit mask of a shaman, circa 1879, collected by E.W. Nelson. Because I was studying masks under the guidance of the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History's Museum Support Center, I was able to both touch and examine in detail this mask along with many others in the Smithsonian collection.
This particular mask is an excellent example of the fact that Yup'ik masks do not need to be very large to be powerful. Though small in size, it is, perhaps, the most powerful mask I've ever handled or felt. It actually made the hair on the back of my neck stand up as I acknowledged it. It definitely belonged to a powerful shaman, and it gave me a sense that tremendous energy was still moving through the spirit of this mask. I came away with very strong and mixed feelings about it.
Something very noteworthy about the piece is that it has human blood splattered across it, indicating that it was used in a powerful ceremony. And as far as the look of it, it's simple yet elegant, and carved by a master carver who had an incredible eye for line and form.
Of all the masks I've handled, this mask was —by far— the most spiritually powerful and is still full of so much energy.