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272. Walrus Transformation #3

The Yup'ik mask, Walrus Transformation #3, created by Alaskan Native Michelangelo "Mike" Tanaaq Wassilie, assumes a form that is half-human and half-walrus. The duality of these features serves to represent the relationship that the Yupiit have with the walrus (Olson 2008:250A YPK). Living in coastal southern and western Alaska, the Yupiit are famous for their sea hunting culture. The products they obtain from sea hunting, such as meat and blubber, are used for their consumption or to satisfy other economic needs (Yupik 2009).

Walrus Transformation #3 includes elements that are traditional, yet original to the artist as well. As a whole, the mask was designed to bring good luck to hunters of the fall 2008 season. The main base of the mask is yellow cedar, more accurately known as Alaskan cypress, which is found abundantly along the west coast of Alaska, Canada and the United States.

A full explanatory statement on the mask was provided by the artist (Olson 2008:250A YPK). The red hoop encircling the area between the upper portion of the base and the ivory appendages marks the barrier between the spiritual world and the real one. Upon the base are two eyes (outlined in red to protect the mask wearer from the walrus spirits), multiple whiskers (made from fishing line), and five ivory appendages, each of which is shaped differently and has special engraved symbols. For the Yupiit, these symbols can serve a specific purpose and hold a significant meaning. It is the combination of these symbols and design elements that give the mask its ability to influence and enhance the yield of each walrus hunt.

The artist's statement continued to explain that the two side appendages are shaped like hands; however, the artist created these hands to look like leaves in order to specify that the mask was designed to benefit the fall, not the spring, hunting season. These ivory leaves have holes carved through them for the walrus spirits to pass through to our world to become corporeal and provide an abundance for hunters. These holes also can be an escape route for the walrus spirits from a monster in the spiritual world that might eat them, ruining the hunt. The middle two appendages are each shaped in the form of a walrus, with the heads pointing towards the center. The "eyes of awareness," as they are referred to by the Yupiit, are engraved on both walrus appendages and are meant to symbolize "movement," implying the walruses will head toward the hunter. The harpoon-shaped appendage in the center represents the hunter. The fox symbol engraved on the harpoon point is a symbol of the artist's family.

The walrus mask offers much insight into Yupiit culture and hunting beliefs. The Yupiit believe that a mask's carved elements can influence the hunting season, showing the high value they place upon the walrus. Although its physical appearance is simple, the mask serves a spiritual purpose that is complex.

-Zain Dada (Augustana 2012)







Michelangelo Tanaaq “Mike” Wassilie (b. 1984, Yup’ik, Alaska), Walrus Mask #3 or Walrus Transformation #3, 2008, Yellow cedar, birch, fishing line, walrus ivory, nylon string, acrylic paint, The Olson-Brandelle North American Indian Art Collection, Augustana College, (250A YPK) 2008.24.8