Alaska Department of Education & Early Development
Alaska State Libraries, Archives & Museums
For Immediate Release
November 14, 2021
The Sheldon Jackson Museum November Artifact of the Month is a Yup’ik mask (SJ-II-B-10).
Sheldon Jackson collected the mask from the community of Andreafsky in 1893. While it doesn't have obvious animal or human features, it does have characteristics and embellishments commonly found in masks from this region of Alaska.
The November Artifact of the Month is long, slender, and oval in shape. It's slightly narrower at one end than the other. Three feathers are pegged in place along the top edge of the mask. The left and right feathers are stripped jaeger feathers. A white downy swan plume is attached to the top of the left feather. Old photographs and records show a swan plume was also once tied to the right feather. It was still in places in photos from 1996. Three empty holes along the outer edge indicate where other feathers may have been attached. White downy plumes are found in many Yup’ik masks and may represent stars in the night sky.
The paint on the mask is relatively sparse. Remnants of whitewash are visible throughout. A red line wraps around the top outer edge. A sizeable groove runs down the center of the mask. The groove is painted red and may represent a mouth, with wooden pegs perhaps representing teeth. Most of the wooden pegs are intact, though three are broken and four have only a fragment of a peg or a partially broken peg. One of the holes on the lower right side is empty. In the center of the groove, three empty holes may indicate additional missing element(s) – perhaps more wooden pegs or an appendage. At each end of the red groove, two sets of cutouts (possibly suggesting eyes) slant away from the center toward the outer edges.
In The Living Tradition of Yup’ik Masks, Ann Fienup-Riordan cites Margaret Lantis’ interpretation of masks with toothy mouths. Lantis connects these masks to traditional stories of monsters or supernatural beings. One example is the “hammer child,” a deformed baby with a mouth full of teeth stretching from ear to ear. In retaliation for breaking taboos, the baby eats its mother and other community members.
Black paint splatters in the lower two-thirds of the mask likely represent the blood of the creatures’ victims (Fienup-Riordan, 179). Several masks at the Sheldon Jackson Museum have similar “mouths” running down their center, with pegged teeth and splatters of paint on each side. The collection also contains many Yup’ik masks with human baby teeth, caribou teeth, or carved wooden teeth.
The Sheldon Jackson Museum November Artifact of the Month will be exhibited until November 30. The museum is home to 112 Yup’ik masks in the permanent collection and a variety of other examples of Yup’ik material culture. You can see them Tuesday-Saturday, 10 am-4 pm. General admission is $7, $6 for seniors, and free for those 18 and under or members of Friends of the Sheldon Jackson Museum or Friends of the Alaska State Museum.
Director, Division of Libraries, Archives and Museums
Fienup-Riordan. The Living Tradition of Yup’ik Masks. University of Washington Press. Seattle, 1996.
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