The Spirit of the Driftwood Mask
Leather, Sterling Silver
In the treeless coastal environment of western Alaska wood was and still is a precious commodity and a key element of Eskimo survival. Wood was used for everything, including essentials such as heat, house and boat frames, sleds, paddles, fish traps, fish racks, boxes and bowls. It was also used to make traditional Eskimo hunting implements such as harpoon shafts, ice chisels, bows and arrows as well as handles for smaller tools. Wood was also the main necessary material for making ceremonial objects such as drums and masks. For a people who lived in an environment without living trees, Eskimo men possessed extensive knowledge of the many kinds of driftwood available to them and the physical attributes of each type.
Just as people performed masked dances to request that animals and fish return in abundance, they also danced to persuade the precious driftwood to return when the rivers thawed in spring. Far from an insentient object, wood was seen as a feeling, knowing being deserving of respect.
Adapted from an original mask collected in St. Michael in the late 1890’s.