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Sugpiaq

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Anthropologists classify the Sugpiaq as an Eskimo people, as their culture and language are most closely related to those of the Yup’ik and Inupiaq. In prehistoric times, the Sugpiaq shared many items of technology with other northern coastal peoples. They built sod houses which were lit by stone oil lamps. They hunted sea mammals from skin covered kayaks equipped with sophisticated harpoons. They wore waterproof clothing stitched from seal intestines, beach grass, and sinew. Additionally, the Sugpiaq speak Sugpiaq, one of six Eskimo languages. Today, Sugpiaq Dancers continue to perform in the tradition of their ancestors. Dressed in “snow-falling” parkas and beautiful beaded headdresses trimmed with ermine fur they sing and dance to the beat of a skin drum. Songs sung in the Sugpiaq language tell both traditional and contemporary stories. Masking is an ancient Sugpiaq tradition. For centuries, Native artists carved images of powerful ancestors, animal spirits, and mythological beings into wood and bark. Masks were made in many sizes. Full-sized portrait masks and enormous plank masks were worn by dancers during ceremonial performances. Masks were often brightly painted and adorned with a variety of attachments. Some masks were held in the hands or teeth, others were tied to the dancer’s head, and very large pieces were suspended over performance areas. Following ceremonies, masks were broken and discarded. This tradition reflects the spiritual power of the images they portrayed. Masks were part of the dangerous process of communicating with the spirit world. They were used in dances that insured future hunting success by showing reverence to animal spirits and ancestors.

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