Arctic and Subarctic

The Arctic cultural area encompasses 5,000 miles along the shoreline of northern Alaska, Canada, and Greenland. Beyond the northern tree line is a land of rolling tundra with a few mountain peaks. Winters are long and severe, and the subsoil remains frozen during the short summers. The western Subarctic includes both the tundra and the northern evergreen forest. It is a land of freshwater lakes, bogs, and rivers. Even today, people depend on fishing and hunting for sustenance. An abundance of wild game, such as moose, caribou, seals, fish, and waterfowl, provides food, shelter, and materials for artists who create objects during the cold winter months.

About the Women's Dance Fans

Central Yup’ik, Alaska, Women’s Dance Fans (Finger Masks), about 1870, wood, duck tail feathers, snowy owl feathers, caribou fur (restored), pigment, pebbles (feathers, fur, and pebbles replaced), Fenimore Art Museum, Cooperstown, NY. Photograph by John Bigelow Taylor.

The Arctic cultures have strong aesthetic traditions. The elaborate masking tradition of the Central Yup’ik people focuses on the spiritual quest of the hunt. Among the Yup’ik, the human hand is a site of tremendous power, and masked dancers never perform bare-handed. The paired Dance Fans in the exhibition offer protection from the spirits and prevent the dancer’s essence from escaping. Each of these fans rattles as it moves and is balanced by the faces carved on it: on one side a male (upturned mouth), and on the other a female (downturned mouth).

Gallery Panorama

Explore other regions.