Yup’ik villages maintained a tradition of seasonal dance performances, lasting several hours, days, or whole weeks, that involved the entire village. These might be celebrated for shamanistic purposes, as a form of prayer among villagers, especially in times of need, sickness, or in preparation for an important hunt. Often, dances occurred in late winter, anticipating the coming spring and in attempt to coax the necessary animal yua back to village hunters. On some occasions, dances would be structured like potlatches, in which one village invited the members of another village to share with them a celebration of their bounties and gifts. In any event, the ceremonies would take place in special large houses called the qasgiq, or men’s house (meeting houses regularly utilized by men at other times, but opened to women and children for the larger ceremonies). The central activity was dancing: groups of dancers, accompanied by drummers, would perform specific narratives. The dances involved special decorations, costumes, and singing. The chief elements of the dance were the paired masks worn by the principal dancers, typically men, who acted out the particular narrative of the song.
Great care went into the preparation of dance masks. Some were worn only by shamans and had great spiritual importance, and these were kept and used continually. Other masks were made only for the purpose of one dance and were discarded, considered drained of their spiritual energy. These types of dance masks were made for one performance only, kept in secret during the preparations for the festivities. There are reports from Yup’ik elders that masks were sometimes left out to return to the elements or burned afterwards. In their narrative aspects, these masks embody many of the animistic beliefs of shamanism, as seen elsewhere in more ancient artifacts from the Old Bering Sea. Some are extraordinary hybrids of multiple animals and spirits in the same mask. Many masks have kinetic components, moving parts that reveal hidden details and creatures: an otter’s belly might open to reveal a yua in the form of a human face; a bear’s jaw might open to show a spirit ensnared by its tongue; a seal’s head might burst forth through a hole in the sea ice, and representations of bubbles, floating upward, might be appended to a barely visible framework.
In visual terms, then, many dance masks of the Yup’ik are elaborate composite sculptures. The ones that have survived, now in museums and private collections, did so because they caught the attention of visitors, who recognized in them objects of great artistic accomplishment. To the outsider, these masks appear otherworldly, dreamlike and haunting, secreting unknowable mysteries. This interpretation parallels Yup’ik elders’ statements that mask imagery was often generated out of someone’s dreams. These were described to a skilled carver, who was asked to interpret them into a manifestation of a mask. The narrative of the dream was often the basis of the song, and the mask’s imagery was fused with it, a visualization of the unfolding story told through the dance.
An important fact about Yup’ik masks is that they were almost always made in corresponding pairs, or multiples, so that the stories they narrated could develop complexity, the way a chorus does in music, with harmony and counterpoint. When first collected, and taken out of context, this fact was often misunderstood, and early collectors thought of similar masks as duplicates rather than as unified partners. For example, founder of the Museum of the American Indian, George Gustav Heye, usually selected one mask from a pair to exhibit, and placed the “extra” mask in storage, immediately divorcing them. This in itself is a fascinating history, and leads us directly back to the lineage of the two masks discussed here.