Mask depicting a bear spirit

late 19th century
more object details

General Description

The Yup'ik Eskimo of western Alaska believe that everything has a spirit (or soul)—people, animals, and things—and all participate in an endless cycle of birth, death, and rebirth. The boundaries between the spirit world and the real world, and between the human world and the world of animals, are not always clear. This mask alludes to those boundaries and to the relationship between human beings and animals, who live together in reciprocity.

The Yup’ik have seasonal festivals that honor the spirits of animals hunted during the previous year. Held in the men’s house, the social and ceremonial center of the village, these events often included masked dances. Masks with encircling hoops manifest shamanic visions of the spirit world, with the ringed center connoting movement between the human and supernatural worlds. The encircling hoops are called ellanguat, which means pretend cosmos or universe, while the feathers represent stars or snowflakes. At the center of the mask is a smiling bear. The circular holes signify a passageway between worlds, the opening in the Sky World through which Tunghak, Keeper of the Game, allows animals to pass from the spirit world to the world of humans, to replenish the supply of game. This may be a reminder that animals give themselves to human beings, who must in turn respect animals.

Adapted from

  • Bonnie Pitman, ed., "Mask with seal or sea otter spirit (1976.50)," in Dallas Museum of Art: A Guide to the Collection (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2012), 59.

  • DMA Label Copy (1976.50), n.d.