Yupik Shamanism and Interesting Yupik Masks

Yupik Shamanism and Interesting Yupik Masks

The Yupik people… A community who have lived near the Arctic Region for thousands of years… Most people also know them for their interesting dance masks. However, not only their masks, but also their struggle to survive against the freezing cold are just as interesting and perhaps inspiring.

Who are the Yupiks?

Yupiks are a people living in the Chukotka Autonomous Okrug of Russia and the Alaska Peninsula in North America. They have a population of about 35 thousand and only about 1600-1800 of them live in Russia. All the rest live in Alaska today.

They are divided into groups such as Siberian Yupiks, Naukan Yupiks, Pacific Yupiks and Alaska Yupiks, but Alaska Yupiks make up the majority of the population.

As cited by Claus-Michael Naske and Herman E. Slotnick, anthropologists think that the ancestors of the Yupik and Inuit peoples crossed into Alaska over the Bering Strait about 10,000 years ago. Since the Bering Strait was covered with ice during the Ice Age, migrations from Asia to America took place through this route.1

Even today, the Yupik people are mostly hunter-gatherers. Berries that grow naturally in the tundra are their main sources of vitamins. Marine animals such as salmon, whales and seals, shellfish such as oysters and mussels, and land animals such as polar bears, foxes, rabbits, beavers and squirrels play an important role in their diet.

Fishing and hunting are the main subsistence activities of the Yupik people. Hunted animals are used not only as a source of protein and fat, but also in almost every aspect of daily life, from clothing to art. There is absolutely no room for even the smallest waste in Yupik philosophy.

The bones and organs of the hunted animal are used to make clothes and simple household appliances. Seal, reindeer, bear, fox, squirrel and rabbit skins are mostly used for fur and shoes. Gastric membranes are used in window making, and intestines are used in raincoats.

Yupik Animism and Yupik Shamanism

Animism is the belief that every entity, animate or inanimate, has a spirit. On the other hand, although shamanism has been interpreted in different ways by many anthropologists, historians and folklorists, according to Mircea Eliade, it can be briefly defined as a “religious ecstasy technique”.2

the yupik people, yupik mask, yupik shamanism, animism, yupik clothing,
Left: The shaman drives away evil spirits, 1890s. (Wikimedia)
Right: Yupik man playing drums, 1927. (Wikimedia)

Yupiks are mostly Christian or shamanist today. Most Christians belong to the Eastern Orthodox Church. On the other hand, shamanist ones developed a unique style different from Central Asian and South American traditions.

Yupik shamanism is above all more animistic than other traditions. In this respect, it can be said that it is close to shamanism in the ancient Altai communities. It is believed that every animate or inanimate entity has a spirit. For this reason, it also reminds of Shintoism, which is considered the national religion of Japan.

Yupik shamans perform many different functions, such as protecting the community against evil spirits, ensuring a fruitful hunt, healing the sick, and making prophecies.

Shamans with healing power are called nice shamans, and shamans with curse power are called evil shamans. All shamans can communicate with spirits, regardless of whether they are nice shamans or evil shamans.

According to the Yupik religion, the spirit is immortal. In connection with this belief, it is a common custom to give the newborn child the name of the last person who died in the community.

Yupik Dance Masks

Masks are objects that hide the real identity and allow the wearer to move relatively freely. This is why people have worn masks to hide their faces or imitate others since ancient times.

Today, the most popular symbol of the theater is the happy and sad masks. The sad one symbolizes Heraclitus and tragedy, and the happy one symbolizes Democritus and comedy.

However, the purpose of using ritual masks is slightly different. Masks worn during religious ceremonies in ancient times often symbolized gods and supernatural entities, and were used to embody abstract concepts. In this respect, it can be said that ritual masks are used for similar purposes in shamanic communities.

the yupik people, yupik mask, yupik shamanism, animism, yupik clothing,
Yupik Masks (Peabody Museum, Harvard University)

Yupik masks are worn during shamanic rituals and dances. In mask making, mostly woods washed ashore by the waves and materials such as horn and bone are used. The masks vary in length from 10 to 50 cm and can reach 9 kg in weight, according to Yupik artist Phillip John Charette.

Yupik masks often symbolize the spirit they are communicating with. It is also possible that it is sometimes the spirit of an animal. This is why some masks are in the form of animals.

In connection with this belief, some Alaska Natives seek consent before hunting an animal by contacting its spirit. In addition, ceremonies are held on certain days of the year to appease the spirits of hunted animals.

Some North American Indians made their masks from cedar wood, considered sacred. Even in this case, the person making the mask had to get the consent of the tree first.3

Masks are used for similar purposes by the Inuit people, another community living near the Arctic, mostly in Canada.4

Such rich descriptive power and colorful surreal masks are undoubtedly identified with the Yupiks among shamanic communities. Unfortunately, the Christian missionaries in the region negatively affected this culture and art.5

Yupik Museums

Tools and equipment such as knives, pipes, dresses and dance masks used by the Yupiks in daily life are mostly exhibited in archeology, anthropology, ethnography and art museums today.

Europe

Here are the main museums in Europe where you can see materials on Yupik culture:

  • Ethnologisches Museum, Berlin, Germany
  • Arktikum, Rovaniemi, Finland
  • Musée Du Quai Branly, Paris, France

North America

Most museums displaying artifacts from the Yupik culture are located in the United States. In these museums, you can see many materials about arctic life and attend exhibitions about Yupiks.

  • Peabody Museum Of Archaeology And Ethnology, Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA
  • Museum Of The North, University Of Alaska, Alaska, USA
  • Museum Of Art, Dallas, Texas, USA
  • State Museum, Juneau, Alaska, USA
  • Metropolitan Museum Of Art, New York, USA
  • National Museum Of The American Indian, Washington DC, USA
  • Museum of Anthropology, University of British Columbia, Canada 


  1. “Alaska: A History”, Claus-Michael NASKE & Herman E. SLOTNICK, University of Oklahoma, ISBN: 9780806140407^
  2. “Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy”, Mircea ELIADE, Princeton University Press, ISBN: ‎9780691119427^
  3. “Venedik Karnavalı Seramik Maskelerinin Sosyolojik Açıdan İncelenmesi ve Uygulama Çalışmaları” Zeynep Hande CANPOLAT, Nişantaşı Üniversitesi Sosyal Bilimler Enstitüsü, Şubat 2008^
  4. “Representing the Spirits: The Masks of the Alaskan Inuit”, Jarich OOSTEN, Anthropology, Art and Aesthetics, Clarendon Press, ISBN: 9780198279457^
  5. “The Milotte Mask Collection”, Lynn Ager WALLEN, Alaska State Museums Concepts, July 1999^
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