For Native peoples of the Pacific Northwest, winter is a time of dance and performance. Among Northwest Coast peoples, including the Kwakwaka’wakw, Makah, and Nuu-chah-nulth represented here, masks are an essential part of important winter ceremonials, which reenact the adventures of hero-ancestors and spirit beings in the mythological past. The rights to these ritual dances have been passed down in families as treasured privileges, and while the themes are similar, the ceremonies vary in detail from region to region.
In Alaska, Yup’ik and Inupiaq peoples honor animals in a variety of ceremonies, the most important of which are the great midwinter hunting festivals. Historically, masks carved by shamans or under their supervision were worn in special dances to please the spirits. As intermediaries between people and spirits, shamans learned the wishes of game animals from visions and trips to the spirit world. Masks could also represent the shaman’s spiritual helpers, which he would try to influence in times of need. Sometimes hung in houses to ward off harmful spirits, masks were also occasionally placed with the dead or used in non-spiritual contexts for popular entertainment. The Yup’ik and Inupiaq masks shown here were made primarily for sale to non-Native customers.
Images © UO Museum of Natural and Cultural History. Production of this gallery was generously supported by The Ford Family Foundation.