The shadow of our single-engine plane coasted north over a landscape that grew increasingly brown and bare. Serpentine rivers which once carved through a sea of trees near Fairbanks now ran naked beneath the sun. I craned my neck over the pilot’s shoulders, impatient for mountains to surface. Believed to be 126 million years old, the Brooks Range spans 700 miles across northern Alaska and the Yukon Territory of Canada. Part of this range is protected within the Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve, which measures the same size as Switzerland and is inaccessible by trails or roads. Within this park I would find what I had been searching for: caribou skin mask makers in the village of Anaktuvuk Pass.
As gray gaunt peaks appeared, multiplying and lengthening until they seemed to tower above the plane, I finally smiled. I had been waiting since my mother died nearly 13 years ago for this moment. Soon, I could study carvings made by wind, water, temperature, and glaciers. Nothing fluttered or twitched in the tufts of dry tundra clinging to sharp surfaces. The pass opened into a valley glittering with blue pools and twisting ribbons of water. The plane made several passes over a cluster of buildings arranged neatly beside a fenced airstrip. Then the wheels gripped, clouding our windows with dust.
Descending from a long line of artists, my mother and I collected masks because of the conversations they invoke long after the life of its creator. A mask continues to serve a purpose “not because it brings the
past back to us but because it may help preserve our future,” according to the late Andrew Paukan of St. Mary’s. Elder Paul John of Tuksook Bay says his elders called masks agayuliyaraq, which means “way of making prayer.”
I met his wife and son a few years ago at the Smithsonian’s Museum Support Center in Suitland, Maryland where, together with anthropologist Ann Fienup-Riordan, they pulled out storage trays to examine the handiwork of their ancestors. “Ahh,” they exhaled together at each item. “Beautiful.” They recorded techniques that they learned and wanted to try at home.
My mother died before she could study the Athabascan, Haida, Iñupiaq, St. Lawrence Island Yupik, Sugpiaq, Tlingit, Tsimshian, Unangax̂, and Yup’ik masks at the Smithsonian’s Living Our Cultures exhibition at the Anchorage Museum. She would’ve been fascinated with how they were used for ceremonies, by shamans to summon and be possessed by an animal or nature spirit, to spy on distant places, foretell the future, and rescue or heal people.
In Living Our Cultures, Sharing Our Heritage: The First Peoples of Alaska, a large maskx̂a found in a burial cave on Unga Island around 1869 has traces of red and green paint and a wooden grip in the back for someone to hold the mask with their teeth. It “may have been supplied to the dead for use in ceremonies during the afterlife.” A Yukon River kegginaquq collected in 1878 represents a tuunraq or shaman’s helping spirit. “It has a semi-human face, wooden peg teeth, a blood-splattered mouth, and red-painted attachments, including two human legs…a wolf tuunraq was said to attack the source of disease inside a shaman’s patients, emerging with its mouth dripping in blood.” Collected in 1928, the Wild Man giyema still has vibrant blue paint on his chin and forehead which represent a woman’s facial tattoo. This type of mask is used in the Deg Hit’an region for the Stick Dance Ceremony, where “carved sticks representing the souls of animals were placed in the river to release the souls back into the wild, ensuring the animals return to be hunted again.”
Rhoda Ahgook, 77 years old and the cousin of Justus Mekiana, the oldest mask maker in Anaktuvuk Pass and the inventor of the process used today to make caribou skin masks, invited me to sit down at her dining table. Rhoda explained in Iñupiaq that she had lived in Anaktuvuk Pass since 1949. Prior to that, her family followed a nomadic lifestyle. She counted on her fingers 23 years of making masks.
She demonstrated how to clean a caribou skin with an ulu knife, dye a skin with a coffee or tea, and stretch wet skins upon mask frames carved from spruce or balsam poplar in the likeness of a relative.
In the summer, it takes only a day for the skin to dry. The mask maker trims the edges of the dried skin with a pocketknife and cuts holes for the eyes and mouth. Apart from calfskin eyelashes, the rest of the materials come from animals the community harvests. Caribou fur is used for the eyebrows and hair. Wolf, fox, grizzly bear, black bear, and wolverine fur is used for the ruffs.
Then, Rhoda invited me to return to Anaktuvuk Pass when I had more time so she could teach me how to make a mask. Oh, Mom you would be so jealous!
We embraced. I bought a mask from Rhoda and asked her what it meant. Rhoda looked confused. I tried again, “Why did you make this mask?”
“For money. To buy food, gas.” Rhoda explained that her husband, Bob Ahgook, and Zacherius Hugo, invented the first caribou skin mask for a dance routine performed during Christmas celebrations in 1951.
This article is an excerpt of the printed version.