A.H. Twitchell

Without Adams Hollis Twitchell (1872–1949), much of Yup’ik culture would have been completely lost in the process of contact with Christian missionaries. To describe him, I shall quote extensively from Edmund Carpenter’s 2005 book Two Essays: Chief and Greed, in a passage where Carpenter in turn paraphrases and quotes from Ann Fienup-Riordan’s important survey of Yup’ik dance masks, Agayuliyararput: The Living Tradition of Yup’ik Masks (1996):

Born in Vermont, Twitchell joined the gold rush, tried mining, then trading. He arrived in Bethel, Alaska, with his wife, a Yup’ik woman from a tundra village, having sailed 80 miles up the Kuskokwim River, with trade goods. There they remained until 1916, when they moved upriver to herd reindeer.

“Although he earned his living as a trader, Twitchell was a self-made scientist with an avid interest in natural history. He collected ornithological specimens for the Smithsonian and was a recognized authority on local flora and fauna.”

…“In latter years,” wrote his son Ben, “when he had gone into the reindeer business and had to travel by foot between the reindeer range and the towns that were his market, he would not hesitate to let the pack horses go on alone or stop to feed while he unpacked his insect net and chased after a butterfly specimen that some museum or collector wanted.… He received orders…from as far away as England. Biologists and botanists sought him out.”

As I understand the story, the Yup’ik sometimes used Twitchell’s warehouse for dance ceremonies, over the protests of a local missionary. In a letter to George Gordon,(1) he wrote: “I attended one dance just to get the masks and information, and went to another and stayed a week until it finished.”

“The mask opposite represents the “muskrat god, Andlu (probably anlu, ‘the hole through which the muskrat emerged from its den’, from ane-, ‘go out’).” Twitchell wrote, “When turned face downward the mask represents a muskrat house. When face upward the rats can be pulled through the hole in the house, the way they come out in the spring. The white discs on the stick represent bubbles. The white face has four teeth, the same as muskrats, and is a member of the same family. He furnishes plenty of rats in the spring, so their skins may be used for clothing.” Hanging pieces below may be water hemlock which muskrats eat.

“Twitchell had the naturalist’s penchant for recording detail… This may seem a minor accomplishment, but in all the thousands of Yup’ik masks dating to the turn of the century, only those collected by Twitchell and, to a lesser extent, [Johan Adrian] Jacobsen, are accompanied by such information. Twitchell’s years in Bethel and his Yup’ik wife likely gave him the necessary access and sensitivity….”

A.H. Twitchell sold 55 stellar Yup’ik masks to George Heye, whose vast, comprehensive collection of Native American artifacts became the basis for what is now the National Museum of the American Indian on the Mall in Washington, DC. A significant number (and arguably the best) of the masks Twitchell acquired came from the village of Napaskiak, about four miles downriver from Bethel, where he lived between 1905 and 1916. The Napaskiak masks Twitchell collected are among the most visually spectacular and complex masks of their kind. In a fascinating, tragic case of cultural misunderstanding, Heye not only cleaved apart matched pairs of masks, but, facing financial difficulties after the Great Depression, between 1944 and 1946 he sold off 26 of the Twitchell masks to Julius Carlebach (1909–1964), an antiques dealer in New York.