November 2007 Artifact of the Month

Artifact: Dance Fans (Arctic, Yupik)

Materials: Wood, feathers, paint





Our artifact this month is a pair of dance or finger fans, which are worn by women from Arctic tribes in special dances. These fans fit on the first two fingers of the woman’s hand. Unlike men, women do not use face masks. In their more reserved style, women sway their bodies and wave their hands, which are adorned with dance fans or finger masks. The finger mask or fan helps accentuate the woman’s minimal movement. Finger masks are similar to fans but have a face carved on them. Women dance with eyes cast respectfully down and refer to the circle in the center of each finger mask or fan as an “eye” which sees for them while they dance. The circle also represents movement between two worlds, spirit and human and dance helps establish the connection between them.

For the Yupik and Inuit people (formerly known as Eskimo) story telling, dance and song are the means of both keeping and expressing their history and cultural heritage. There are basically two kinds of dance ceremonies in these Arctic cultures: social dances, which are mainly entertaining and ceremonial dances, usually held to honor the spirit of the animals of the hunt. The circle and dot motif on this pair of fans probably refers to spiritual vision and is symbolic of the spirit world of the Yupik people. The hole in the center is believed to be a passage where the spirits of fish and animals can see into the human world to determine how they are being treated. If the fish or animal finds the treatment acceptable, it will repopulate the world.