Revitalizing Yup’ik dancing traditions through carved masks

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by Ben Charles

In 1982, my Grandfather, Nicholas Charles and two other Master Carvers sought to revitalize Yup’ik dancing traditions. Carving Yup’ik masks to be worn during our dance and songs. 34 years later, these heirloom traditions still exist, but are far and few between dance groups.
Over the next month and a half, I will carve six masks, two dancing sticks and a traditional hanging ornament. The masks and other pieces will represent a revitalization of traditions for this generation to the next.

Masks in Alaska Native traditions, especially in Yup’ik culture, represent the spirits of beings. These beings range from wolves to ravens to those long gone. Each has their own role in interacting with people, especially, during dance and song. The artwork I will make will have profound meaning for the dance groups using them and 2018 Cama-i Dance Festival.

Traditionally, Yup’ik people would come together two to three times a year. During these gatherings, they would celebrate milestones with song and dance. The men would wear carved masks while dancing, embodying the spirit represented. The spirit would bring fortune or knowledge to the people present during these festivals.
I will be carving a wolf, orca, seal, and three human spirits to be given during the 2018 Cama-i Dance Festival. Along with two dancing sticks that all dance groups can use and a special surprise for everyone to enjoy.

Cama-i is a yearly gathering of Alaska Native tribes and their dance groups in Bethel, Alaska. The festival attracts thousands of people; all celebrating Yup’ik culture and traditions. There are three dance groups I will be giving the masks to: the Bethel Traditional Dance Group, Ayaprun Elitnaurviat Elementary School, and Kuskokwim University Campus College. Each have their own groups, but no masks to wear.
In November 2017, I approached the Cama-i Committee to ask if this endeavor would be possible. They happily agreed. Now I am preparing to carve all the artwork and am needing funds to complete the project. This project has no monetary gain for myself, as the artwork will be given away. The only caveat is that the masks stay within the groups indefinitely and the dancing sticks and ornament be used by all Cama-i dance groups.
I would like to raise $4000 to cover costs of materials to carve the six masks, two dancing sticks and the hanging ornament. Materials would include, wood, ivory, paint, disposable tools (i.e. paint brushes, buckets, drop cloth), and a few specialized carving tools. Three masks would be carved for adults and three would be for children. Funding would allow me to carve the pieces and present them in time for the Cama-i Dance Festival.
Like my Grandfather, I would love to see the traditional artwork be used again in Yup’ik and other Alaska Native dancing. To see a revitalization in one’s own culture is an inspiration to others by keeping the culture thriving and to live on for future generations to come.
Thank you for reading about my project! I hope you will consider helping to bring back Yup’ik traditions back to our festivals!
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