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A shaman’s exquisitely carved Nepcetaq mask with inserted bone teeth | Donald Ellis Gallery

Nepcetaq Mask

Yup'ik or Inupiaq
Lower Yukon River, Alaska

ca. 1780-1830

wood, teeth

height: 19"
width: 23"

Inventory # E4264

Please contact the gallery for more information.

Condition: all but 2 bone teeth replaced


The George Terasaki Collection, New York, NY


“Spirits of the Water”, Fundacion “la Caixa” in collaboration with the Menil Collection. October 6, 1999 - January 9, 2000, Centro Cultural de la Fundacion “la Caixa”, Barcelona; February 2 - April 2, 2000, Centro Cultural de la Fundacion “la Caixa”, Madrid; May 5 - August 13, 2000, The Menil Collection, Houston, TX
"Moon Dancers: Yup'ik Masks and the Surrealists", Di Donna Galleries, New York, April 27 - June 29, 2018


Brown, Steven C. Spirits of the Water: Native Art Collected On Expeditions to Alaska and British Columbia 1774 – 1910. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2000
Brown, Steven C. Transfigurations: North Pacific Coast Art, George Terasaki, Collector. Seattle: Marquand Books, 2006, pl. 38
Moon Dancers: Yup'ik Masks and the Surrealists, Field, Jennifer (Ed.), Di Donna Galleries, New York, 2018, pg. 18.

Related Examples

Sheldon Jackson Museum, Sitka, Nos. II.B.8, - See: Sheldon Jackson Museum. Fienup-Riordan, Ann. The Living Tradition of Yup'ik . Masks. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1996, pg. 78

Smithsonian Institution, Washington, Nos. 38812 - See: Fitzhugh, William and Kaplan, Susan. Inua: Spirit World of the Bering Sea Eskimo. Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1982, pg. 213, pl. 261

Peter the Great Museum of Anthropology and Ethnography, St. Petersburg, No.571-13 - See: Fienup-Riordan, Ann. The Living Tradition of Yup'ik Masks. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1996, pg. 83, for a painted example collected by Vooznesenskii in the 1840’s

Before the end of the 19th century Yup’ik dance involved a great variety of masks, all of which were carved under the guidance of a shaman. While the majority represent animal spirits, certain masks manifest the images of the tuunrat, powerful spirits who live in the moon and act as keepers of game. This type of mask was usually hung from the ceiling inside the gasgiq, the ceremonial men’s house. By contrast, the Nepcetaq is a rare mask said to rise and cling to the face of the shaman on its own accord (nepete means “to stick or adhere”). Unlike most masks which were burnt or left to decay on the open tundra following the dances for which they were carved, Nepcetaq masks were owned by the shaman and kept over several ceremonial cycles.

A number of similarly large, flat-rimmed spirit masks such as this have been collected from the south Norton Sound area at the villages of St. Michael, Stebbins, and other communities in the region (see: Ray, Dorothy Jean. Eskimo Masks: Art and Ceremony. Seattle:University of Washington Press, 1967, plts 6-9; and Fitzhugh, William, Crowell, Aron. Crossroads of Continents: Cultures of Siberia and Alaska. Washington: Smithsonian Institution, 1988, nr. 306). Masks that were newer when collected retain their brightly painted surface and the self-tied, radiating feather elaborations, of which only fragments remain in this older and more subtle example. Many feathers were once looped by their quill tips through the small holes in the outer rim of this mask and tied in place with a length of sinew that was strung from one quill to the next around the perimeter of the rim. Small animal teeth once set into the lips of the central face would have lent a bristling appearance to the image. Yup'ik traditions called for the representations of powerful, semi-­human spirits who controlled the passage of animal spirits from the sky world to the earth. Known as tuunrat, these spirits were sometimes portrayed in unusual dances performed without movements, accompanied by special songs that describe the character of the particular image. The nature of different tuunrat are likely revealed in the paintings and other iconography of the carved images, such as the lines of the face, the circle on the forehead, and the unknown painted details of this mask. Related plaque masks from the Norton Sound area feature differing numbers of holes piercing the flat rim, such as the four holes surrounding this face, which are said to represent the passages of the animal spirits, or the generalized concept of passages and transformation.

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