Peoples & Societies
The Arctic coasts of Alaska and Canada are part of the Arctic, or North Pacific Rim, culture area. The resources of this rich maritime environment have played a significant role in the region's cultures. Birds, fish, shellfish, and many sea mammals— sea otters, whales, seals, sea lions, and walrus—provide food, and from the sea mammals come other products such as oil, skins, and ivory. The Yup'ik peoples who live on Alaska's western coast and adjacent islands see their relationship with animals as collaborative and reciprocal. Animals as well as humans have an immortal soul or spirit ("inua" or "yua"), and both participate in an endless cycle of birth, death, and rebirth. The hunter who shows respect for his prey finds that the animal gives himself in return.
Traditional Yup'ik beliefs were expressed in seasonal festivals which honored the spirits of animals that had been hunted during the previous year. Held in the men's house ("qasgig"), 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. They represent a ringed center that connotes enhanced spiritual vision and movement between human and supernatural worlds.
Carol Robbins, "Mask with seal or sea otter spirit (1976.50)," in Dallas Museum of Art: A Guide to the Collection, ed. Suzanne Kotz (Dallas: Dallas Museum of Art, 1997), 200.