Caribou masks capture spirit of Nunamiut culture
Caribou mask making is an intricate art form Lela Ahgook has honed over time. At 72 years old, she’s now an elder in Anaktuvuk Pass, where she’s been creating masks since the 1960s.
“Every piece of the caribou is here,” she pointed out where she used the hoof on the forehead of a mask lined with wolf fur.
The art is unique to the North Slope community. Two trappers, Bob Ahgook and Zaccharias Hugo, were the first to craft masks in the 1950s as a way to do something different with their uncured pelts.
Now, Lela Ahgook said it’s a way to bring in money to the struggling village.
“I’m trying to make masks for tourists, wishing I could get some income. When you have so many people unemployed it’s hard to keep everyone not hungry,” she said.
Ahgook sells her masks at the Alaska Federation of Natives Conference and at the Simon Paneak Museum in Anaktuvuk Pass. She said the number of tourists visiting the area has dropped off, though.
The village is tucked inside of Gates of the Arctic National Park. At 8.5 million acres it’s the second largest national park in the country, but one of the least visited. The National Park Service said there are only about 11,000 tourists that fly in every year.
Not only are the tourist numbers down, so are the caribou. Before the Nunamiut people settled in Anaktuvuk Pass they were nomadic hunters that followed the herd; now they’re at the mercy of the animals’ migration pattern.
“When I was young we used to see caribou herds pass through the pass by the thousands,” said lifelong resident Esther Hugo. “Right now, we don’t see any. It’s been pretty bad and hard for our people.”
No caribou means a lack of food for the village and a lack of supplies for artists. Ahgook has to use old pelts she stockpiled when the hunting was better.
Over the years, she’s made countless masks using her father’s frames he made in the 1950s.
“Millions,” she laughed.
The artform is in danger of dying off if more young people don’t learn from their elders. Ahgook’s granddaughter, Josie Mekiana, said that’s why she wanted to continue the tradition.
“Growing up, I was one of the only ones who took a lot of interest in this kind of thing. I’m proud to be Inupiaq,” Mekiana said.
From the hoof to the head, every piece of the caribou plays a key role in making sure the makes capture what the Nunamiut culture is all about.