Restoring Traditions With Yup'ik Masks

by Benjamin Charles


In 1982, my Grandfather, Nicholas Charles and two other Master Carvers sought to revitalize Yup'ik dancing traditions. Wearing Yup'ik masks during our dance and song. 34 years later, these heirloom traditions still exist, but are far and few between dance groups. Over the next month and a half, I will carve six masks, two dancing sticks, and a traditional hanging ornament. The masks and other pieces will represent a revitalization of traditions for this generation to the next.

Masks in Alaska Native traditions, especially in Yup'ik lore, represent the spirits of beings. These beings range from wolves to ravens. Each has their own role in interacting with people, especially, during dance and song. The artwork I will make will have profound meaning for the dance groups using them and 2018 Camai Dance Festival.

Traditionally, Yup'ik people would come together two to three times a year. During these gatherings, they would celebrate milestones with song and dance. The men would wear carved masks while dancing, embodying the spirit represented. The spirit would bring fortune or knowledge to the people present during these festivals. I will be carving a wolf, orca, seal, and three human spirits to be given during the 2018 Camai Dance Festival. Along with two dancing sticks that all dance groups can use and a special surprise for everyone to enjoy.

Camai is a yearly gathering of Alaska Native tribes and their dance groups in Bethel, Alaska. The festival attracts thousands of people; all celebrating Yup'ik culture and traditions. There are three dance groups I will be giving the masks to: the Bethel Traditional Dance Group, Ayaprun Elitnaurviit Elementry School, and Kuskokwim University Campus College. Each has their own dance groups, but no masks to wear.

In November 2017, I approached the Camai Committee to ask if this endeavor would be possible. They happily agreed. Now I am preparing to carve all the artwork and am needing funds to complete the project. This project has no monetary gain for myself, as the artwork will be given away. The only caveat is that the masks stay with the groups indefinitely and the dancing sticks and ornament to be used by all Camai dance groups.

I would like to raise $4000 to cover costs of materials to carve the six masks, two dancing sticks, and the hanging ornament. Materials would include, wood, ivory, paint, disposable tools (i.e. paint brushes, buckets, drop cloth), and a few specialized carving tools. Three masks would be carved for adults and three would be for children. Funding would allow me to carve the pieces and present them in time for the Camai Dance Festival.

Like my Grandfather, I would love to see these traditional items be used again in Yup'ik and other Alaska Native dancing. To see a revitalization in one's own culture is an inspiration to others by keeping a culture thriving and to live on for future generations to come.

Print by Stan Mute and dance fans made by myself