A team from the Vatican was in Bethel last week trying to trace the origins of several traditional Yup’ik masks they received nearly a century ago. Museum experts are going through the Vatican’s vast collection and trying to find the people who can explain the art.
There is next to no documentation for the seven masks besides a note that says “from Holy Cross.” The Yukon village was the location of a Jesuit orphanage and mission.
Nicola Mapelli, curator for the Ethnographic Section of the Vatican museum and colleague Katherine Aigner held meetings in Bethel Tuesday at the Cultural Center. They say they contacted people in Holy Cross who believe the masks are from further south. That brought the team to the Lower Kuskokwim to attempt to track down the history of the masks.
The wooden masks are light in tone with orange and blue coloration. They depict animal forms like salmon and birds with expressive faces. The trail from Alaska to the Vatican begins in 1924 when Pope Pius XI wanted to hold an international exhibition of works from far reaches of the earth where his missionaries were based.
The Pope asked for objects from around the world to show the daily and spiritual lives of the people. The Vatican team emphasizes that the masks were gifts, but for the masks, they’re not sure of their origins. Regional experts thought the masks could be from the Goodnews Bay area although there was no formal Catholic mission there at the time.
When the Vatican team traveled to Goodnews Bay, Wednesday, they say one person identified a mask as the style from the area and a carver remembered his grandfather and father making similar masks.
However, there is still no definitive word on the masks’ provenience and they say their detective work will continue. They want to show photos and have conversations with people in the YK Delta and hope that they can learn the story of how the masks got to the Vatican.
Of the 100,000 items sent to the Vatican last century, 60,000 were returned and 40,000 stayed to form the core of a collection. The items have not been on display for 40 years, as the museum closed due to preservation concerns.
They’re now reaching out across the world to connect with the communities and bring the items back into public view. They recently did a large exhibit of indigenous Australian art and are hoping to someday do an exhibit on the Americas.
Bethel’s John McIntyre, originally from Eek, is an accomplished mask carver and dancer and has had his work displayed at the Smithsonian. He met with the Vatican team and was eager to lay the groundwork for bringing the masks back to Alaska for an exhibit.
“We need to start looking at bringing back all these artifacts that have been brought out of the region. It’s very important for us to keep our culture and tradition alive. And with the artifacts, we can explain to the younger generation before that information is lost,” said McIntrye.
The team expressed interest in someday showing the masks in Southwest Alaska. The international logistics and funding challenges, however, make it a very slow process.
Missionaries were among the first Europeans to live among the Yup’ik people, and not without a troubled history. There are stories of missionaries repressing traditional beliefs and the Yup’ik language.
The team says the objects now are an opportunity for the Vatican to reconnect in a positive way with the indigenous people of Alaska.
Next the representatives from the Vatican will travel to Barrow with more photos of objects from Northern Alaska, including ivory carvings.
Note: Vatican officials did not have permission to be quoted for this online story or to share their high-quality digital photo of the masks.