The Mask

White mask 1

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Masks, in their many flavors, have been created by native tribes along the Northwest coast for centuries. They were mostly used as part of a costume in a traditional dance.

But when American missionaries came to western Alaska in the early 20th century, they viewed the masks as representing pagan gods and sadly many were destroyed. Eventually native traditions and culture reasserted itself and both traditional dancing and mask making staged a comeback. Today many styles of native masks may be seen in Alaska galleries.

Wooden halibut maskOnce a woman had admired a particular mask at a friend’s house and inquired as to who had made it and where it came from. She eventually wrote the mask maker, who lived on a remote Bering Sea Island, established a correspondence, set a price, sent a deposit, and after about six months, the mask finally arrived. It was a wonderful mask and the lady was totally thrilled and quickly sent off the substantial balance – genuine masks made by native carvers are not inexpensive.

A few months later she ran across the friend who had originally connected her to the mask carver.

“Did you get your mask? How did you like it?” Her friend said.

“It’s a totally wonderful mask – everything that I wanted. But there’s just one odd thing. I sent my deposit and then a check for the balance, but that was all almost six months ago and neither of the checks ever cleared my bank – did something happened to the carver?”

“Oh,” said the other woman, “Don’t worry about that. There are no banks on the island, so your check is just probably Ircit maskcirculating as cash….”

A friend had an excellent collection of masks in his store/museum in Skagway. Once I had purchased a gorgeous mask from a gallery in Juneau for $2,400, original, from a native Alaskan carver, and was chagrined to find a very similar mask at my friend’s shop for only $900. So I asked him.

Helmet 4“Ah,” said he, “yours is made by a native Alaskan. Mine was made in the Philippines. I just cut pictures of great masks out of a book from the American Museum of Natural History and my carver copies them..” (Note: today genuine Alaska native works of art are marked on the back by a silver hand icon in an oval circle)

These masks are from my collection – they are Yupik masks from western Alaska.