Story and photos by Fr. Brad Reynolds, SJ, who has published countless photos and stories in publications across the country, including National Geographic. He works as formation director for the Oregon Province.
The story of Eskimo mask dancing is a story in transformation, much like a face transfigured once a mask is put upon it. The Yup'iks of the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta, living along the Bering coast of Alaska, performed their mask dances long before they were first encountered by any of the other cultures that stumbled across them in their exploration of the northlands. After decades of being disregarded, the masks are being brought back.
Eskimo mask dancer Bryan Muktoyuk wears a half mask during the Noisy Twin dance performed by King Island dancers. The beadwork, lined by beaver fur on the leather glove, is an Athabascan design.
In the qasgiq, or men's lodge, on winter nights, the broad, thin drums echoed like claps of thunder as villagers crowded in to witness and participate in the dances. Often, those from nearby villages were invited to join them, especially when new mask and dances were created.
Yup'iks call it Agayullyararput: our way of making prayer. The masks that they wore recreated the world and its inhabitants, and their songs and dances told stories about that world. The Yup'ik belief respected creation, giving souls to all living beings. The salmon, seals, and birds they hunted willingly offered themselves to the Yup'iks, who depended on them for life. And, in return, the Yup'iks gave respect and honor to the spirits of the animals they hunted. Agayullyararput offered such respect and honor.
Early missionaries to Alaska--Moravian, Russian Orthodox, and Catholic--did all they could to discourage and eliminate mask dancing. Condemned as being shamanistic and idolatrous, the masks were either destroyed or hidden away, and Eskimo dancing eventually became little more than a cultural curiosity.
But the dances were never completely forgotten. Nor were the masks.
Part of the ongoing transformation is an enlightened understanding of their significance by the missionaries who continue working with the Yup'iks. That is certainly true for Jesuits in Alaska. In accord with the Church, the Society of Jesus recognizes the plurality of beliefs among the peoples it works with today. As the documents of the Jesuits' 34th general congregation acknowledge: "Our service of faith takes place today in a world that is becoming increasingly conscious of the plurality of spiritual exercises in diverse religions."
So it was fitting that in January, when villagers from 20 Yup'ik communities met in Toksook Bay for dancing, Jesuit missionaries working in the region were present. An exhibit of ancient masks and other Yup'ik artifacts was brought to the village as part of the festival. Eskimo masks from collections in Berlin, Paris, Seattle,
and Washington, D.C., were returned to Alaska and put on display for the first time in that small island village on the outer edge of the Bering Sea. Young schoolchildren crowded up to the displays, pointing in wonder at sights they had never seen. Behind them, nodding in recognition, stood ancient elders.
Meanwhile, there were dances: new ones made for the occasion and many, many old ones. Once again, drums sounded like thunder as masked dancers re-created a world filled and energized by all spirits gathered into One.