Arctic Dance House Model

April 30, 2015

Kuskokwim Dance House

Object Analysis and Report for Anthropology of Museums
by Michele Belluomini

This Inuit (Eskimo) Model Dance House (object #NA1522) in the Penn Museum’s Arctic collections drew my attention because it seemed very mysterious, but also like something I “knew.” The more I studied it, the more I realized that much more was going on within in it, than if it were just a “toy.”

Yup'ik (Eskimo) Model Dance House from Kuskokwim, Alaska, Photo by Margaret Bruchac with permission from Penn Museum. Museum Object Number NA1522.
Yup’ik (Eskimo) Model Dance House from Kuskokwim, Alaska,
Photo by Margaret Bruchac with permission from Penn Museum. Museum Object Number NA1522.

I have so many questions: What are the materials? Wood, but what kind of wood? There are cross-wrappings on the two back cross-poles, but not on the front. What are the lighter colored pegs for? Could something be strung from the pegs over the poles to create a roof? Are the figures carved of whale bone, seal bone, or walrus tusk ivory? Why have the figures been placed into small holes in the structure? There is a hole in the floor near two prominent standing figures; is this a spirit hole of some kind? What is missing?

And then there are activities within the structure. Some figures are holding items: frame drums, rattles, and a rope (for what purpose?). Some figures appear to be singing; one appears to be calling out, and one is “answering,” perhaps. Two “lead” figures in this house have markings, tatoos of some kind; perhaps they are shamans or ritual leaders. Perhaps this is a ceremony of some kind, or an initiation? One figure smaller than the others appears to be a young boy? Is this a ceremony for him?

Yup’ik (Eskimo) Model Dance House from Kuskokwim, Alaska, Photo courtesy of the Penn Museum. Museum Object Number NA1522.
Yup’ik (Eskimo) Model Dance House from Kuskokwim, Alaska,
Photo courtesy of the Penn Museum. Museum Object Number NA1522.

The animal being held by one figure has the same markings as the two prominent figures; it is not clear whether it is alive or dead, intended to be released, or meant to serve as food or sacrifice. This animal looks very much like a large weasel (given the long tail) or a sea otter. In Inuit mythology, animals are significant in hunting rituals and shamanic practices. What is the purpose/meaning of this animal in this dance house?

Locations and Connections

Preliminary research led me to the Kuskokwim River in Alaska. The name derives from a Yup’ik word—Kusquqvak–meaning “big, slow-moving thing.” This river is approximately 702 miles long, connecting multiple Indigenous groups: the Yup’ik Eskimo on the lower river, the Deg Hit’an Athabaskan in the middle; the Upper Kuskokwim Athabaskan on the upper part; and the Koyukon Athabaskan on the North Fork.I wondered about the possibility of widely-held beliefs among these different groups, since the Yup’ik and Athabaskan languages are two very different tongues.

According to Susan Kaplan, Native people in this region, “developed a sophisticated technological and religious system. They focused on the exploitation of highly seasonal resources found throughout the region. Hunters ventured out in carefully constructed kayaks. . . . They wore amulets and charms that protected them from dangerous supernatural beings, and sang songs that attracted the game.”[1]

Kuskokwim umiak identified as “Happy Traveler Canoe.” Photo by Margaret Bruchac, with permission of Penn Museum. Museum Object Number NA1521.
Kuskokwim umiak identified as “Happy Traveler Canoe.” Photo by Margaret Bruchac, with permission of Penn Museum. Museum Object Number NA1521.

Another Museum object, labeled as “Happy Traveler Canoe” (object # NA1521) originated from the same area. This object—which is technically an umiak, not a canoe—also appears to have spiritual or ritual implications, given that the upright figure (perhaps a shaman) is pierced through with a spear.

These two objects—the Dance House and the Umiak—were collected during the same Alaska Ethnological Expedition, and accessioned with sequential numbers, leading me to wonder if they came from the same source or were both used ceremoniously. There does not appear to be any data about their maker (or makers), or any indication how Gordon came by them.

A similar model, identified as an “Iñupiaq model qasgiq (men’s house),” survives in the collections of the National Museum of the American Indian, collected from Point Barrow, Alaska around 1900 by Frank Wood (item # 5/3662). This model is described as follows:

“This complex and beautifully constructed model depicts a dance scene in a qasgiq (or qasgi or qaygiq—communal men’s house). Traditionally used by men for eating, bathing, and sleeping, the qasgiq was also a place where all community members gathered for performances of masked dancers. This model shows a highly detailed tableau of spectators watching dancers perform one of a series of winter festivals that take place around the time of the winter solstice.”[2]

Patterns of Collecting

Between 1875 and approximately 1925, a massive quantity of material – both sacred and secular – was collected from native craftspeople of the Northwest Coast for the private and public collections of the European world. The major demands came from the museum, which coincided with the enormous growth of museums of all kinds; anthropology museums like the Penn Museum were a significant part of this movement.[3]

George B. Gordon, Director of the University Museum at this time, embarked on expeditions to the Northweast Coast in 1905 and 1907, for the purpose of collecting as much as possible from Alaska natives. His career as Director was marked by, “…a formidable number of additions to the collections. Early on he set about purchasing as many items of high quality as funding would allow.” Artifacts NA1521 and NA1522 were most likely acquired during the 1907 trip to Alaska, when Gordon traveled with his brother MacLaren. They began in the Yukon, and traveled by canoe down the Yukon river to the Kuskokwim river. He made substantial collections among Yup’ik people living in the interior and along the lower reaches of the river, revisiting many of his 1905 locations. [4] Gordon believed that Native American cultures and lifeways were disappearing, and so he urged other field collectors, like Van Valin, to assist in making the Museum, “…an instrument for the preservation of the truthful records of the aboriginal people of America.”[5]

Interestingly, according to Dorothy Jean Ray, Alaska’s Native people were eager at the time to produce “market art,” especially in the Kuskokwim – Nunivak area. The Southwestern Yup’ik, “. . . went joyfully to their knives and their needles at the first opportunity to sell their ‘art’.” In 1936, ethnographer Hans Himmelbeber suggested that the younger generation was just beginning to earn money from the souvenir business, but Ray suggests that the making of “souvenirs” was an older practice. Other observers, like signal corps officer Edward William Nelson, noted in 1882 that the Native people in this region, “still retained their ancient customs [and] their character is but slightly modified by contact with whites…they retain their complicated system of religious festivals and other ceremonies from ancient times. Their work in ivory and bone bears evidence of great skill.”[6]

Does this mean that artifact NA1522 was created solely for sale as a souvenir? The grace and beauty of this artifact suggests that it could have been a teaching tool, or it could have had some other Yup’ik purpose. It is difficult to know, given that Gordon’s field notes are sketchy at best. My assessment is that this Dance House model is more than a simple ”toy,“ as it is currently identified. The level of detail suggests that it could be what might best be called a “ceremonial remembrance.” This (and other questions) could likely be answered by consulting Yup’ik experts in mythology, ceremony, and cultural practices.


[1] Kaplan, Susan A. and Kristin J. Barsness 1986. Raven’s Journey: The World of Alaska’s Native People. Philadelphia: The University Museum, University of Pennsylvania, p. 129
[2] Infinity of Nations. Art and History in the Collections of the National Museum of the American Indian. The National Museum of the American Indian, George Gustav Heye Center, New York, NY.
[3] Cole, Douglas 1985. Captured Heritage: The Scramble for Northwest Coast Artifacts. Vancouver/Toronto: Douglas & McIntyre, pp. 286-287.
[4] Gordon, George B. 1917. In the Alaskan Wilderness. Philadelphia: John C. Winston Co. See Kaplan pp. 32, 39.
[5] Gordon to Van Valin, 24 October 1912, North America: Arctic, Point Barrow-VanValin, B4, F2, UMA, in Kaplan, Susan A. and Kristin J. Barsness 1986, p. 39.
[6] Ray, Dorothy Jean 1981. Aleut and Eskimo Art: Tradition and Innovation in South Alaska. Seattle: University of Washington Press. Himmelheber, H. 1987. Eskimo Artists. Fieldwork in Alaska, June 1936 until April, 1937. Stuttgart: Kassel, 1938, 1953 (enlarged ed.). Nelson 1882 is cited in Ray 1981, p. 15.