Anaktuvuk Pass -- Gates, Part 4

Continued from previous posts in this series about a 2002 hike in the Gates of the Arctic national Park:  Arctic Loneliness, Wolf, and Paying Attention.

We knew we were nearing our destination when we saw the first tracks.  I refer not to the footprints of animals, of which we had seen many.  I mean the parallel lines created by the oversized wheels and tundra tires of ATVs, all-terrain vehicles, which are often referred to in the far north by the generic version of a popular brand name, Argo.  About five days after our encounter with the wolf at Chandler Lake, and a couple of days after watching the grizzly mother nurse her cubs, we saw the first set of Argo tracks crisscrossing the tundra, quickly followed by many others.  It could only mean that we were getting close to Anaktuvuk Pass.

Anaktuvuk Pass is a village organized half a century earlier through the leadership of an Alaska Native elder, Simon Paneak, with help from a famous bush pilot, Sig Wien.  The village now numbers about 300 residents, almost all of them Iñupiat.  The distant ancestors of the village’s residents had transitioned from a maritime culture to become inland hunters of caribou, developing a nomadic lifestyle adapted to the migratory habits of these wandering animals.  They became known as the People of the Caribou, or Nunamiut.

None of us had ever been to Anaktuvuk Pass before, but Brian had called ahead and received a letter from the village council giving us permission to camp in a sheltered area just outside of town, near the gravel airstrip.  This advance planning brought a look of relief to the park ranger when we checked in at the visitor center.  Anaktuvuk Pass lies within the boundaries of Gates of the Arctic National Park but it is a self-governing village and he was pleased that Brian had known and respected this fact.

The helpful ranger pointed us to a weather beaten general store and restaurant where we could find hamburgers and the like, which would be welcome after spending a week on the tundra.  He also suggested we stop by the house of the village schoolteacher, Susan, who ran a sort of day camp for local kids during the summer.  The ranger said that she would be able to show us some examples of Anaktuvuk masks.

The schoolteacher had a gaggle of children with her, mostly young girls, when we visited after having a bite to eat and depositing our packs near a stand of willows beyond the landing strip.  We stopped and chatted as they proudly showed us their drawings and other craft projects.  Then Susan brought out some masks and began to explain their history. 

Anaktuvuk masks are about the size and shape of a human face, with softly tanned caribou skin expressing the facial contours.  Cutouts portray the eyes and mouth, and other features such as hair and eyebrows are added using materials that may include caribou or beaver hair or the fur of wolves or lynx.  Male depictions often include a mustache or goatee, and the masks of both sexes are often ruffed with long hairs of wolf or arctic fox, creating a parka-like effect.

The maker of a mask first carves the likeness of a human face out of a block of wood, which is not necessarily easy to obtain because the village lies far above the tree line.  The wood carving then serves as a template or mold for producing a series of masks, perhaps over a period of many years.  Each individual mask is made by stretching wet caribou skin across the frame and drying it in a technique that retains the impression of the carved face, much like school children reproduce the images of their own faces with molded papier mache.  

Anaktuvuk masks at Varykino cabin.

The artistry of Anaktuvuk masks is as much about the wood carving as anything else, and the local people can easily identify who made a particular mask because they recognize the distinctive shape of the mold, or frame.  There are various stories behind the origin of the masks, but they all revolve around an elder named Justus Mekiana, who passed a few years ago. 

The teacher sold masks on consignment for the benefit of the local artists, including Mr. Mekiana.  After we had admired her stock, we purchased several examples and then returned to where we had dropped our packs in order to set up camp.  A few hours later, we heard giggling and laughter.  Susan soon appeared, walking hand in hand with two of her young charges, who we knew to be sisters. 

They were coming to inspect our camp and to deliver a message.  One of the young girls said that she had spoken with her mother, who had invited us to come by later on and meet a male elder who lived in their house.  He would have some interesting stories about the masks, she said, if we wanted to hear them.  Susan confirmed that the invitation was genuine and encouraged us to accept, which we did with pleasure.

And so it was that we were sitting that evening in a small frame house with the girls’ mother and several members of their family, including the elder.  Using a self-effacing third person narrative form, he told us a story that added a further dimension to what we had learned about the masks.  It went something like this:

“They say that many years ago, there was a celebration at a big community hall in the new town.  All the people would be there, including the children.  Some young men got the idea of making skin masks for the entertainment of the people.  They figured out how to do it.  When the party started, they entered the building holding the masks in front of their faces.  All the people laughed.  And that is how they started making the masks.”

We had just completed a hike from Chandler Lake that included rugged wilderness terrain and two of the most memorable animal encounters I have ever experienced.  But the best story of all was from a village elder who had introduced a new art form to his people.  It was a privilege to hear him tell it.

This is the fourth post in a series about a 2002 hike from Chandler Lake to Anaktuvuk Pass in Gates of the Arctic National Park.