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.