Peary MacMillan Arctic Museum
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Exhibits
Facing the Future
October 17, 1998 - August 1, 1999
Facing the Future showcases caribou hide and whalebone masks made by the North Alaskan Inuit group, the Iñupiat. These masks exist at the intersection of traditional and modern Iñupiat culture. They are made exclusively for sale, as “tourist art” but are firmly rooted in traditional Iñupiat culture. They evoke historic and pre-historic traditions in the way they are made, in the materials used to make them, in the expressive faces they portray, and in the symbolic meaning they convey. At the same time, they represent one of the ways the Iñupiat are adapting to the changes brought to them by southerners over the last hundred years.

Many of the masks in Facing the Future were are made in the inland Iñupiat community of Anaktuvuk Pass. The original Anaktuvuk Pass masks, inspired by Halloween masks, were made to wear in a winter festival dance, as a humorous disguise. While this initial use was a great success, it did not catch on. In the late 1950s these first masks were sold to a visiting scientist. This purchase led to the development of mask making as a craft for sale to tourists. Despite the non-traditional origins of this craft, mask makers draw on Inupiat traditions for their inspiration.

The Iñupiat and their ancestors have lived in Alaska for 1000s of years. For over 1000 years coastal Iñupiat have been successful hunters of the bowhead whale. Inland Iñupiat hunt caribou as they migrate through the mountains from summer calving grounds along the coast to winter in the forested interior. Trade between coastal and inland communities reinforced social ties and helped bring prosperity to both communities. The products of the land and sea provided all the resources they needed: food, clothing, shelter, transport and entertainment.

Late in the last century, life began to change dramatically as whalers, traders, and missionaries arrived in significant numbers. More recently the military, industry and government have introduced in even more drastic changes. Today, most Iñupiat live in modern towns and villages and rely increasingly on imported southern technology for entertainment, clothing, shelter, transport and even food. Access to these things requires money. Some Iñupiat participate in wage labor but families still rely on traditional resources for at least part of their diet. As in other parts of the Arctic, craft work has become an important source of cash income. Production of masks and other crafts fits well with the demands of hunting, which is generally not compatible with regular wage labor. Craft production also keeps open links to the past in a way that wage labor rarely can. The masks represent an accommodation between the demands of modern world and a desire to maintain a traditional hunting lifestyle.

To mark the opening of this exhibit, the museum hosted three mask-makers from Anaktuvuk pass: Justus and Ethel Mekiana, and Rachel Riley. They generously spent a morning in the foyer of Hubbard Hall, providing a rare demonstration of their mask-making techniques. 

A catalogue for the exhibit is available through the shop.

Pictured above: Caribou skin masks, Inupiat, Anaktuvuk Pass, Alaska, ca. 1960. Museum purchase.
Iñupiat men traditionally wore their hair cut short, in a bowl cut or even a tonsure, with the top of the head shaved. This hairstyle is shown on the masks by a fringe of fur on the forehead, representing bangs. Male masks are typically made on long, thin molds.  <br> <br>  <em>Caribou skin mask, Inupiat, Anaktuvuk Pass, Alaska, ca. 1960. Museum purchase.</em>
Iñupiat women traditionally wore their hair parted in the middle, in two long braids. Maskmakers in Anaktuvuk Pass use the longest caribou hair, with a part sewn into the middle, to represent this hairstyle. Female mask faces are also rounder, with fatter cheeks than male masks.   <br> <br>  <em>Caribou skin mask, Inupiat, Anaktuvuk Pass, Alaska, ca. 1960. Museum purchase.</em>

This mask is unusual, for caribou ears have replaced the ruff. Iñupiaq seamstresses sometimes used skin and fur from caribou heads, including ears, to make hoods for hunters’ parkas. Hunters dressed in these outfits projected sympathy to the animals. The caribou were honored and allowed themselves to be caught.  <br> <br>  <em>Caribou skin mask, Inupiat, Anaktuvuk Pass, Alaska, ca. 1960. Museum purchase.</em>
Before 1900, most Iñupiaq women had their chins tattooed when they reached puberty. The tattoos are said to represent fertility. Enduring the pain of tattooing was meant to prepare women for the pain of childbirth. Maskmakers apply tattoos to many female masks. They use hide appliqués, or draw directly on the hide with ink.   <br> <br>  <em>Caribou skin mask, Inupiat, Anaktuvuk Pass, Alaska, ca. 1960. Museum purchase.</em>

1996.18.41 Anaktuvuk Pass maskmakers frequently include labrets (lip plugs) on male masks. In this case, discs of caribou skin have been sewn on the face, representing ivory or stone labrets. Ivory for traditional labrets was acquired through trade with coastal Iñupiat trading partners.   <br> <br>  <em>Caribou skin mask, Inupiat, Anaktuvuk Pass, Alaska, ca. 1960. Museum purchase.</em>
Shamans could be benevolent or dangerous individuals. Some shamans were identified based on special experiences they had had. Physical deformities were traditionally thought to confer shamanic power on individuals as well.  Crooked-face masks such as this one may represent such shamans. Some lopsided faces were also intended to be humorous.  <br> <br>  <em>Whale bone mask, Inupiat, North Alaska, ca. 1960. Museum purchase.</em>

This small mask is carved from the densest bone from a walrus skull. Although it has ties, it is much too heavy to wear. The wrinkles on its forehead and the well-defined cheeks suggest an aged, almost skeletal, person. Shamans sometimes linked their power to their ability to transform themselves into a skeleton.   <br> <br>  <em>Whale bone mask, Inupiat, North Alaska, ca. 1960. Museum purchase.</em>
<p><b>Mask-making demonstration and exhibit opening gallery:</b> </p>    Justus Mekiana and Rachel Riley dying caribou hide with strong tea, during a mask making demonstration at the museum, October 17, 1998 Photo by Laurel Waterman

<p><b>Mask-making demonstration and exhibit opening gallery:</b> </p>    Visitors watching Justus Mekiana at the mask making demonstration. Photo by Laurel Waterman
<p><b>Mask-making demonstration and exhibit opening gallery:</b> </p>    Ethel Mekiana using an ulu to remove hair from caribou skin for a mask. Photo by Laurel Waterman

<p><b>Mask-making demonstration and exhibit opening gallery:</b> </p>    Justus Mekiana talking about small mask. Photo by Laurel Waterman
<p><b>Mask-making demonstration and exhibit opening gallery:</b> </p>    Rachel Riley adjusts sinew in needle. Photo by Laurel Waterman

<p><b>Mask-making demonstration and exhibit opening gallery:</b> </p>    Masks were encouraged at the reception marking the opening of the exhibit. Even the Hubbard Hall statue dressed up. Photo by Laurel Waterman
<p><b>Mask-making demonstration and exhibit opening gallery:</b> </p>    Student guides Charlotte Perry ’99 and and Jenn Dodd ‘00 wearing half masks at the exhibit opening reception. Photo by Laurel Waterman