Native American Masks of the Northwest Coast and Alaska

View the entire gallery or click on the above images to enlarge.

For native peoples of the Pacific Northwest, winter was a time of dance and performance. The dramatic impact was enhanced by music, flickering firelight and shadows playing against plankhouse walls. Among Northwest Coast peoples, including the Kwakwaka’wakw, Makah, and Nuu-chah-nulth represented here, masks were an essential part of important winter ceremonials, which re-enacted the adventures of hero-ancestors and spirit beings in the mythological past. The rights to these ritual dances were passed down in families as treasured privileges, and while the themes are similar, the ceremonies were complex and varied in detail from region to region. Some of these traditions are still maintained today.

In Alaska, Yup’ik and Inupiaq peoples honored animals in a variety of ceremonies, the most important of which were the great midwinter hunting festivals. During many of these, masks carved by shamans or under their supervision were worn in special dances to please the spirits. As intermediaries between people and spirits, shamans learned the wishes of game animals from visions and trips to the spirit world. Masks could also represent the shaman’s spiritual helpers, which he would try to influence in times of need. Sometimes hung in houses to ward off harmful spirits, masks were also occasionally placed with the dead or used in non-spiritual contexts for popular entertainment. Yup’ik and Inupiaq masks shown here were made primarily for sale to Western customers.

Shown here is a selection of Pacific Northwest masks from the holdings of the University of Oregon Museum of Natural and Cultural History. Photography by Chris White, text by Pam Endzweig, and web development by Keith Hamm. Images © UO Museum of Natural and Cultural History. Production of this gallery was generously supported by The Ford Family Foundation.

Further Reading:

Anchorage Historical and Fine Arts Museum.
1980    To Honor the Spirits: Eskimo Masks from the Sheldon Jackson Museum, Sitka, Alaska, July 6 - Aug. 31, 1980. Anchorage: Anchorage Historical and Fine Arts Museum.

Holm, Bill.
1987    Spirit and Ancestor: A Century of Northwest Coast Indian Art at the Burke Museum. Seattle: Thomas Burke Memorial Washington State Museum.

Eagle mask, Makah, Northwest Coast
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Humanoid mask, Kwakwaka’wakw(?), Northwest Coast
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Grizzly bear mask, Kwakwaka’wakw, Northwest Coast
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Humanoid mask, Kwakwaka’wakw, Northwest Coast
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Humanoid mask, Nuu-chah-nulth, Northwest Coast
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Khweykhwey mask, Kwakwaka’wakw, Northwest Coast
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Khweykhwey mask, Kwakwaka’wakw, Northwest Coast
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Humanoid mask, Nuu-chah-nulth, Northwest Coast
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Humanoid mask, origin unknown, Northwest Coast
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Bird mask, Yup’ik, Alaska
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Humanoid mask, Yup’ik, Alaska
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Humanoid mask, Yup’ik, Alaska
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Goose mask, Yup’ik, Alaska
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Humanoid mask, Yup’ik, Alaska
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Man’s face, Inupiaq, Alaska
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Man’s face, Inupiaq, Alaska
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Man’s face, Inupiaq, Alaska
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Wolf mask, Inupiaq, Alaska
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Raven mask, Inupiaq, Alaska
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Humanoid mask, Inupiaq, Alaska
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Humanoid mask, Yup’ik, Alaska
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Man’s face, Inupiaq, Alaska
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Woman’s face, Inupiaq, Alaska
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