Northern Alaska Masks

Masks, common to prehistoric peoples all over the world, are a traditional aspect of Alaska's Eskimo, Aleut and Indian cultures. Into this century, masks were worn by dancers during ceremonies and by shamans during curative rituals, but Christian missionaries discouraged their use. Traditionally masks were used to thank the animals that had "given themsevles" to successful hunters; to encourage the spirits of those animals to don flesh yet again and return. After the ceremonies, the masks were usually destroyed. In the past, masks were made chiefly of wood such as cedar and alder. Appendages of feathers, fur, human hair and ivory and/or wooden and baleen dangles accented the undulations of the dance. Bird quills might double as whiskers, porcupine quills as seal muzzle bristles, and caribou teeth as human teeth.

Because trees rarely grow on the arctic tundra, indigenous craftsmen along the Bersing collect driftwood to carve into masks and other craft items. These Bush-dwellers are limited to creating their artwork from nature. Their annual output fluctuates with the tide. Today whalebone is increasingly being used for masks. The single facemask without appendages was common north of St. Michael. Masks from other areas are more complex. They contain not only a central face, but also one or more halo-like surrounds of bent willow or steamed wood. On these halos are mounted additional, smaller masks and/or tools, birds or animals. These subsidiary elements seem to be helping spirits or "familiars," or targeted prey animals. This mask form is sometimes called the "halo mask," "ring mask," or "spirit wheel mask."

Eskimos believed that every animal and object possessed a spirit, one of whose various forms was a human form, occasionally, both the animal and its enigmatic spirit would appear in one mask, superimposed or side-by-side. Some masks could be extremely large as the cannibal masks, where the beaks protruded three to four feet past the faces of the dancers wearing them or others could be miniatures, four inches or so from ear to ear called "maskettes." Others were "transformation" masks dramatizing a metamorphosis of a bird to human form.

Traditionally, masks were created for a specific occasion such as a ceremony of several days' length, and discarded, placed in a burial cave or burned when that occasion had played out. In modern times, however, many masks are created specifically for sale.