Yupik Tribe: Clothing, Masks, Music & Dancing

Instructor: Stephanie Przybylek

Stephanie has taught studio art and art history classes to audiences of all ages. She holds a master's degree in Art History.

Some people create distinctive masks and clothing and develop unique ways of dancing. For the Yupik, this includes performing a dance without moving their feet! In this lesson, we'll explore traditions in the art and culture of the Yupik tribe.

Where Do the Yupik People Live?

People live all over the world. Some, like the members of the Yupik tribe, make their homes in Arctic climates. The Yupik peoples are indigenous or native to northern regions that include parts of Alaska and Canada. They trace their origins back thousands of years and were traditionally semi-nomadic. They followed seasonal patterns of fish and wildlife migrations, and spent summers in fishing camps and winters in villages. You might have heard them called Inuit, but they call themselves Yupik. The word 'yupik' means genuine or real people.

Yupik Clothing and Masks

Because the Yupik live in cold climates, they wear clothing that protects against harsh weather. Traditionally, women made clothing out of caribou hide and sealskin, plentiful natural materials available after a successful hunt. When sewing garments, the fur side faced inward for added warmth. Men's and women's clothing were meant to fit loosely. Garments include long, hooded parkas called kuspuks and inner shirts, pants and socks, as well as warm outerwear like sealskin boots and mittens. Today, some people wear modern clothing items, but others still make and wear more traditional garments.

Examples of Yupik clothing, including a kuspuk
Yupik clothing examples

Besides distinctive clothing, the Yupik people have a long tradition of wearing masks. The Yupik people are skilled carvers, and they make beautiful carved wooden masks with sewn and pierced elements as decorations. Yupik masks might have multiple faces, be painted with lines and patterns and be decorated with fur or feathers. Masks might resemble people or animals like seals and wolves. Some might also resemble characters in legends of the Yupik people.

Yupik fish mask, carved wood
Yupik fish mask

You might think of masks as fun decorations we wear at Halloween. But to the Yupik people, masks are not just decorative. They make the spirit world visible and serve an important spiritual purpose. Each mask has unique significance to its creator, a meaning that isn't always obvious by looking at it. Historically, sometimes masks were made for a specific single event and then discarded.

Yupiks also use masks in dancing.

Yupik bird mask, carved and painted wood
Yupik bird mask

Yupik Music and Dancing

In traditional Yupik culture, masked dancing is important for ceremonial and spiritual reasons. Dancing is done to maintain balance between the physical and spirit worlds. It's usually done in winter, in a communal men's house known as a qasgiq, where women are permitted for the dancing events. The dances might last for several hours or several days, and they involve songs that have several choruses. In fact, it isn't always easy to tell when they end.

Yupik dancing is done by men and women in a distinct structure and order. The dancers are stationary. They don't move their feet, just their upper body. Arm movements are punctuated by hands holding distinctive fans called tegumiak. Women stand and make rhythmic hand movements with graceful, flowing fans made of woven grass, feathers and caribou whiskers. They wear cotton garments that resemble traditional kuspuks. Men kneel or sit cross-legged in front of the women. They also wave fans, but theirs are rigid, made of wood and feathers.

Behind the dancers are the drummers. They use large, shallow one-sided drums with heads sometimes made of caribou or walrus skin. The drummers and other ceremony leaders usually do the singing, and the drummers provide the dance's rhythmic background for the dancers who are telling the story with their hands. In some dances, men in paired masks stand in front and act out a particular narrative as it's being told through song.

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