Reunited Wolf and Caribou

Left: Central Yup’ik peoples. Wolf (Kegluneq) Mask, late 19th century. Alaska, Napaskiak. Wood, feathers, and pigment, 17½ x 9½ x 6 3/8 inches (44.5 x 24.1 x 16.2 cm). Collection of Adelaide de Menil and Edmund Carpenter

Right: Central Yup’ik peoples. Caribou (Tuntupiaq) Mask, late 19th century. Alaska, Napaskiak. Wood, feathers, and pigment, 20 x 14 x 10 inches (50.1 x 35.6 x 25.4 cm). Collection of Adelaide de Menil and Edmund Carpenter


Some 100 years after A.H. Twitchell first collected them, and George Heye separated them, masks 9/3407 and 9/3408 have come together again, this time in Houston.

On May 21, 2014, a few days after viewing the Yup’ik mask representing a caribou at the auction house, Adelaide de Menil committed to purchase it, with the intention of reuniting it with its long-solitary mate, the wolf mask hanging in the Witnesses exhibition. It was then transported to Houston, bringing about the permanent reunion of two very special works of art, created by the same artist, in the same village, at the same time, for the purpose of celebrating one specific dance narrative that now only these masks can remember. Very possibly, the original wearers of these two masks were members of the same family.

An exhibition organized at the Menil Collection, featuring the newly reunited masks, MicroCosmos: Details from the Carpenter Collection of Arctic Art, opened on August 29, 2015. We can now witness these two works of art as an integrated whole. Each mask, complementary left and right halves, share the features of a single creature: each has one nostril, one ear, one eye, half a lower jaw. They are Wolf and Caribou, hunter and prey, an essential life-cycle unity.

Looking at them carefully, considering their form and meaning, we become aware of the interdependence of the two creatures. In the natural environment of central Alaska, they are complementary, yet oppositional. Wolf has one ear, the right, cocked forward in attention. He has one eye, almond-shaped. Caribou’s corresponding left ear is pricked up, listening. Her eye is rounded, ovoid and alert. Both animals have nearly identical red-painted nostrils, their noses topped with arching contour lines, deeply carved, almost forming secondary eyes and eyebrows when seen together. They each have open jaws with matching teeth, curving toward each other, to form a single mouth.

Wolf and Caribou are the left and right halves of a face—perhaps composing a common yua—and two co-existing species that also embody symbolism of the larger Yup’ik universe. Traces of their original paint of earth pigments suggest other dualities: Wolf, a nocturnal creature representative of the night is painted black, dotted with white star-like spots that are echoed in his crown of long feathers, stripped bare except for their starry tips. Caribou, in contrast, is painted red with a broad section of white covering her snout and head, to symbolize the day. Her face is framed by short swan feathers, close to the neck, reinforcing her bright appearance.

They are intertwined spirits, inextricably linked to each other. They are hunter and hunted. Visually, they are left and right; temporally, before and after. As such, they are manifestations of the continuity of time, upon which all life simultaneously depends and cannot escape. Songs and dances also have this temporal quality. There is the silence before, the first percussive sounds, a development of words and rhythms and a story told, then completion and again the absence of sound. What might the song be that these two masks were created to narrate? What dream foretold of them, called Wolf and Caribou into being? Was it their creation myth itself? Could it have been a personal, intimate communiqué between a wolf and a caribou, as they faced each other in a vital moment? Or could the Napaskiagamiut, “people of Napaskiak,” who inhabited them and sang and danced within them, have had other, broader intentions?

[Why did I sing to the wolf the first time I saw it?] I had no choice. (laughter) That’s the way it is. When the song system is within you, sometimes the universe implores you to do that, and you have no choice. You just give in to the dance. That’s all, just give in to the dance.
Chuna McIntyre
Wolf and Caribou installed in the MicroCosmos exhibition, The Menil Collection, Houston

Curious pieces of evidence are the two catalogue cards documenting these masks in the archives of the NMAI. George Heye, utilizing Twitchell’s field notes, wrote succinct descriptions of many of the masks he collected, and the sentences he wrote for them are telling:

“9/3407 – Mask representing animal’s head, representing summer before the salmon runs. Napaskiagamut, Eskimo. Near Bethel, Kuskokwim River, Alaska.”

“9/3408 – Mask representing animal’s head, representing spring. Napaskiagamut, Eskimo. Near Bethel, Kuskokwim River, Alaska.”

They did not refer to them as wolf or caribou, but as summer and spring. Twitchell was the closest point of contact with the Napaskiagamiut who created and used, and then traded away, these masks. Perhaps he witnessed their dance himself, as he reported to have done on several other occasions. Thus we can infer their original song told something of the seasonal metaphors the two animals evoked. Additionally, the villagers, and Twitchell too, had the benefit of intimate familiarity with caribou (he became a reindeer herder after moving away from Bethel in 1916) and some of them with wolves, and understood many of the particularities of their behavior, their importance in the cycle of arctic life, and the nuances of their relationship.

In relation to the two masks, then, it is compelling to reflect a moment upon wolves and caribou in nature. In his beautifully sensitive study on the behavior of wolves and our mythologies about them, Of Wolves and Men, the author and naturalist Barry Lopez observes and then speculates:

One of the central questions about predators and their prey is why one animal is killed and not another. Why is one chosen and another, seemingly in every way as suitable, ignored? No one knows.

The most beguiling moment in the hunt is the first moment of the encounter. Wolves and prey may remain absolutely still while staring at each other. Immediately afterward, a [caribou] may simply turn and walk away…; or the wolves may turn and run; or the wolves may charge and kill the animal in less than a minute. An intense stare is frequently used by wolves to communicate with each other, and wolves also tend to engage strangers—wolf and human—in stares. I think what transpires in those moments of staring is an exchange of information between predator and prey that either triggers a chase or defuses the hunt right there. I call this exchange the conversation of death….

…It is a ceremonial exchange, the flesh of the hunted in exchange for respect for its spirit. In this way both animals, not the predator alone, choose for the encounter to end in death. There is, at least, a sacred order in this. There is nobility. And it is something that happens only between the wolf and his major prey species. It produces, for the wolf, sacred meat.

Lopez admits this “conversation” is speculation on his part, but elaborates it in the context of Native Americans hunting. Helen McDonald in her book H is for Hawk invokes it when describing hunting behavior of her falcon. And when he visited the Menil to see the Wolf and Caribou masks for the first time, Chuna McIntyre—whom the Yup’ik Nation have declared a Living Treasure—immediately broke into a song he learned from his grandmother, who was born in the village of Napaskiak. McIntyre told me, “Instead of singing for his supper, the wolf sings to his supper.”

If indeed wolves and caribou interact in a “conversation of death,” we might imagine in this pair a portrait, if you will, of two specific mask-spirits, who decide between themselves on the outcome of their encounter on this particular day. Might it be like the respectful ceremony of trust reflecting the hunter-hunted symbiosis recognized by the human community that McIntyre so eloquently describes? Wolf and Caribou, then, would communicate, silently, in nature; the Yup’ik use song and dance to express their gratitude and supplication. Traditional hunting communities do not conceive of the human species as separate from the animal kingdom, and certainly never at the top of its hierarchy. From earliest times, hunters have imitated other animal hunters, such as wolves and bears, observing their methods, and often invoking the spirits of the animals they most needed to emulate. Might the wolf and caribou masks relate to this in some way, or to someone’s dream?