Sunday, December 18, 2011

Aleut/Unangam Masks

Earlier this year, I had the opportunity to visit the town of Sand Point on Popov Island in the Shumagin Island group. The Shumagin Islands lie off the southern coast of the Alaska Peninsula close to the eastern boundary of the Unangam territory.  Popov Island is now the only Island in the Shumagins with a substantial permanent human population.
Unga Island in the background. Popov Island in the foreground.

But until recently, neighboring Unga Island was populated as well.  And before the invasion by the Russians in the years following Bering's discovery of Alaska in 1741, Unga had a vibrant culture of which little has survived, save some masks.

I am guessing that Aleut culture on Unga was vibrant pre-1741 based on the fact that they made these stunning masks.  The making of art generally is impossible without a certain prosperity that affords people the leisure time to create art.  But besides the minimum level of prosperity, the making of art also requires that a culture have pride and confidence in themselves and their way of life.

Two more masks from Unga. Several things about these masks are worth mentioning.  The masks have holes bored into their chins and foreheads, an indication that hair or something else may have been attached to the masks at one time.
Another point worth mentioning here is that masks are usually provided with eye holes so the person wearing the mask can see.  As is apparent from the pictures there are no holes where the eyes are.  The person wearing these masks used the holes bored in the nostrils for eye holes.  This means that the masks are quite a bit taller than a human head.

The mask in the lower left corner may be a good indication what these masks may have looked like with all their added decorations in place.

If we compare the Unagam masks with those of Yupik people we can see right away that there is a good deal of difference in them.  Yupik masks are seldom purely human but often show additions of animal features or blends of human and animal features.  It appears that they depict transformations of fusions of humans and animals.  The mask from Unga by contrast show strictly human features, albeit, big-nosed humans.
Unfortunately, little is known about how the masks of Unga were used.  Unlike the Yupik culture which had little European influence until the 19th century, the Unagam culture was impacted by the Russians almost from the start of the Russian invasion.  As a result, pre-contact religious practices and the manufacture of accompanying parephenalia were stopped.  And the number of generations that intervened to the present day did not carry knowledge of traditional practices forward.

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