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The Steven Michaan Collection of North American Tribal Art : The Art of the Spirit World : Actic
Human Face Masks
Wood & Human Teeth, 8” Height, c.1830 - 1880

While the Inupiat and Yup’ik villagers are culturally and ethnically related, separated only by language differences and, often, hundreds of miles of territory, they have developed distinct versions of similar traditional mask forms.

In the case of the Inuipat, masks are typically less elaborate than those made by their Yup’ik neighbors to the south-east, and usually smaller, covering only the face. This may be a result of more limited supplies of wood, given that Inupiat villages are found mostly north of the Arctic Circle, well above the tree line. These masks also display infrequent use of coloring, coming from places where earth pigments are rare or inaccessible.

As shown in these examples, however, they are often inlaid with teeth (either taken from animals or from carved bone or ivory fragments), as well as evidence of fur or hair attachments.

Remarkable, but unsurprising, is the proximity of form to more ancient Old Bering Sea sculptural traditions, as the Inupiat share both the same land and, probably, an intact lineage from their ancestral forebears. One can easily note stylistic similarities between Punuk and OBS-style doll heads carved from walrus ivory and these distinctive wooden versions.

Wooden artifacts dating thousands of years old have indeed been discovered in archaeolgical sites on the Siberian side of the Bering Strait, corresponding to Inupiat village sites on the eastern coast. This suggests that, while there is little physical evidence of it, the tradition of mask-making may date back well into ancient times, in a relatively unbroken traditional form.

That both modern Inupiat masks and ancient Old Bering Sea dolls share traits suggesting shamanistic practice is clear, and intriguing. Could there, then, be a connection between the performative use of modern Inupiat masks and the significance of earlier, more mysterious, ivory carvings of dolls? In a culture in which the personal is also communal, this is very likely.