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Museum of Culture and Environment

Reflections on the Mask


Remarks delivered  by Prof. Marna Carroll (American Indian Studies; Anthropology and Museum Studies) at the opening of “Then and Now: The Changing Arctic Landscape’)

CWU Museum of Culture and Environment
January 13, 2026


The mask, an ancient and powerful symbol throughout much of human history, has been robbed of its meaning and sacred medicine in the Western world. It has become an inert object on a wall, adding a decorative accent or an interesting topic for cocktail party chatter. It is a plaything, the means for a child to pretend to be someone or something else for a time. It has come to represent the potential for duplicity, a tool in the hand of the betrayer, awakening fear in us of being made fool of by someone using it to conceal reality from us, the beguiled. The mask embodies deception—and even at its most benign, we do not allow that the masks hold any truth of their own.


For the Chu’pik and Yu’pik people of Alaska, whose masks may be viewed in this exhibition—the mask is something entirely different from Western conceptions. Even before its creation, the mask has a power and being of its own. The being of the mask communicates with the shaman or medicine person who then guides the carver in the creation of the proper form and home for the emergent spirit. The mask lives—when worn, its bearer does not act as the spirit but is the spirit brought forward in order to interact and communicate in the physical world. The mask wears the person.


These masks, vital to Chu’pik and Yu’pik life, permit a two way dialogue between the spirits or forces at work in the world and the people so that all: physical, spirit, human, animal, geological, climatological and so on, maintain the balance, the harmony, for the continued existence of the world. Perhaps we were too quick to throw aside our masks, mistrustful of their appearance and forgetful of the truths they told us.


We face difficult and dangerous forces now. We have given them new names; we call them: atmosphere, ozone, solar radiation, climate… We stopped communicating with the spirits, these forces, because we believed we had the knowledge and ability to make them bend to our will. We believed that we dictated the terms of existence to them. The forces, never stopped, never left off the pattern. They continued their dance, even as we acted as if they were inconsequential, even as we overset the balance vital to our own existence.
The dance, the ritual, has gone out of rhythm. The elements no longer harmonize. We have begun to listen once more but may have taken too long. We have lost the ability to speak their language. We are forced to acknowledge that we lack the skill, technology, medicine or Manitou to return to balance. We can only hope that the masks will reawaken to us in time, that we can rediscover the steps and the song to bring our world back into harmony before greater damage is done.

-Marna Carroll

Image Caption: Winter ceremonial mask, Cup'ig people of Nunivak Island

Permanent Collection: Museum of Culture and Environment

 

 

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