JUNEAU, Alaska (AP) – For more than 100 years, more than 70 Alutiiq ceremonial masks were housed in a museum in France, honored as art yet completely cut off from their original cultural context.
Thousands of miles away in Kodiak lived the only people with the knowledge to unlock the masks’ history and significance – the descendants of the Alutiiq artists who made them, and who, until recently, had no idea that such an amazing physical display of their ancestors’ work even existed.
The book “Giinaquq (Like A Face)” describes how these two distinct pieces of the same story were woven back together, enriching both cultures in the process.
The story of the masks’ displacement begins with a lone Frenchman paddling a kayak through the waters around Kodiak Island. This French anthropologist, named Alphonse Pinart, visited Kodiak and the surrounding villages in 1871 and 1872, gathering knowledge – and objects – as he went. It was a time of transition for many communities; Alaska had recently been purchased from the Russians, in 1867, but the transformative influence of American missionaries, which would soon silence many aspects of traditional Native culture, had not yet taken hold. Thus Pinart was able to witness some of the last traditional Alutiiq ceremonies and practices of that time.
A careful scholar, Pinart took copious notes about the things he saw and heard – winter festivals, songs and stories – and about the masks he took with him.
“He was an interesting fellow because he didn’t stay in the population centers,” said one of the editors of “Giinaquq,” Amy Steffian. “He went to some remote places.”
His methods of acquisition remain unclear, Steffian said, but it’s possible that he took the masks with permission, or that their absence was not noticed. Alutiiq ceremonial masks were used to tell stories or to ensure a successful hunt, Steffian said, and to call spirits into a ceremony. Because of their role as spiritual communicators, in many cases they were stored away from people, and were not kept as art objects.
“Masks are one of those religious objects that people didn’t necessarily preserve,” Steffian said. “They were considered powerful intermediaries between the spirit world and the corporal world.”
It’s also possible that the Alutiiqs already had begun to turn away from traditional practices, Steffian said, and had started to put such ceremonial objects aside, leaving them free for Pinart to take.
The fact that the masks were not often preserved and the timing of his visit makes Pinart’s collection very unusual, Steffian said, and one that has major historic significance in preserving an aspect of the Alutiiq culture that had been largely lost by the turn of the century.
After gathering more than 70 masks from various Alutiiq villages, Pinart then went back to France and donated the whole collection to a museum, the Chateau-Musee de Boulogne-sur-Mer, near Calais.
And that, for a long time, was that.
“The Native community didn’t realize (this collection) was there,” Steffian said.
More than 125 years later, the story was taken up again, this time by scholars and anthropologists – among them a French graduate student studying at the University of Alaska under anthropology professor Lydia Black. Soon Sven Haakanson, executive director of the Alutiiq Museum in Kodiak and a member of the Old Harbor Alutiiq tribe, heard of the collection and quickly grasped that this was something he needed to pursue.
“He knew pretty quickly that this was an amazing treasure,” Steffian said.
Once Haakanson had decided that the masks needed to be reconnected to the Alutiiq culture in some way, he set about trying to make that happen. Unfortunately, the French were reluctant to cooperate, Steffian said, because they were worried Americans would try to take the collection.
Though not well-understood in Boulogne-sur-Mer, the masks were highly valued as art objects. The museum that houses them, a former medieval castle built in the 13th century, has built a large international collection of antiques since it was founded in 1825, including Greek and Egyptian items. The museum considered the Alaska masks and Pinart’s study of them a part of France’s intellectual history.
Haakanson then decided to bring more members of the Alutiiq community with him to make their case, and when the French saw how moved the Alutiiqs were upon seeing the collection, they relented.
“(The Alaskans) cried when they got in the room with the masks, they were just overcome,” Steffian said.
To the Alutiiqs, the masks were far more than just amazing and beautiful objects. They were a virtual encyclopedia of cultural and technical knowledge for the Alutiiq community, and provided a visual diary of how they were made, from hand strokes and tool marks to painting techniques.
“There’s nobody alive that knows this stuff,” she said. “That transmission of cultural knowledge was stopped.”
Pinart’s notes, which had remained untranslated all these years, were given to the Native Alutiiq speakers for translation. Pinart had in some cases recorded the songs that accompanied the masks.
“(Alutiiq artists would) write a song and produce a mask together, it was part of the creative process of artists who wanted to tell a story,” she said.
In this way the masks were given back their cultural context and reintegrated into Alutiiq history. Some of them traveled to Kodiak in 2008, and were studied by contemporary carvers and artists.
The book, published in May, contains photos of the complete collection and includes an informative text in English, Alutiiq and French, that provides a cross-cultural understanding of the masks’ traditional meaning and use.
“Giinaquq” is the University of Alaska Press’ best-selling book of 2009.