“pair of dancing mitts”
Language: Bering Strait Iñupiaq
Where I came from [King Island], they used this kind of mittens for Eskimo dancing. I think these mittens are from the Wolf Dance.
—Marie Saclamana, 2001
The Wolf Dance is part of Kivgik, the Messenger Feast. It reenacts a traditional story of swallows turning into wolves. Dancers in mittens and eagle feather headdresses jump backwards through holes that represent the swallows’ nests, and come out wearing wolf masks. These mittens are decorated with puffin beaks. The Wolf Dance and Messenger Feast both ended in the early part of the 20th century as people adopted Christian beliefs, but have been revived as expressions of cultural identity and community.
Region: Cape Prince of Wales, Alaska
Object Category: Ceremony
Dimensions: Length 79.5cm
Accession Date: 1918
Source: n.a. (seller)
Museum: National Museum of the American Indian
Museum ID Number: 086758.000
Identifying & explaining(1)
Marie Saclamana: Where I came from, they used this kind of mittens for Eskimo dancing. I think these mittens are from that Wolf Dance. There are only certain songs that they put these on and dance. They don’t just take them and do a Welcome Dance. They called these aqłitiiq [dance mittens]. And they used these when we did the Wolf Dance. They had short ones and long ones. I guess they used them a lot long ago when they had the Wolf Dance. They say they had that Wolf Dance for three days. They must have had the Wolf Dances at Wales, Diomede, all those areas.
Jacob Ahwinona: Mm-hmm.
Marie Saclamana: When they meet—I think they said they had it here and there, village to village each year.
Long ago when they didn’t believe in our [looks up], they used shamans and all those things. And Frank Ellanna said they took out the parts that are the shaman’s way of doing, because they’re not good because we believe in [points up].
Branson Tungiyan: A three-day long ceremony of dance. If they make a mistake during the dances, does it often end up in the person or somebody dying?
Estelle Oozevaseuk: Yes.
Marie Saclamana: I remember Frank Ellanna told us that my husband’s mom’s first husband, he was at the Wolf Dance. He was one of the main dancers that went through that big hole. And Frank said, after that Wolf Dance, not very long after, he died.
Estelle Oozevaseuk: Yes, that’s what I was thinking. Somebody told me if there had been a mistake, a death occurred.
Branson Tungiyan: They also used to have that Messenger Feast ceremony. Maybe they were used during the Messenger Feast ceremony.
Marie Saclamana: Yes.
Branson Tungiyan: Each of the villages must have had similar dances like the Wolf Dance. They must have used these at Wales and Diomede, during the Messenger Feast ceremony just like King Island does their Wolf Dance.
Marie Saclamana: Yes.
Suzi Jones: Do they still wear mittens like this with some of the dances today?
Marie Saclamana: Yes.
Suzi Jones: The dances they do with them, I’ve heard them called good and bad shaman masks.
Marie Saclamana: Mm-hmm, they still do.
Jacob Ahwinona: Where we’re at, up inland, I missed those dances. I wasn’t born yet. I was too late. But my dad, he caught the Eskimo dance before they did away with it.
They had Wolf Dances like at King Island. When the missionaries came, they did away with it because—
Marie Saclamana: I know. They didn’t want them to.
Jacob Ahwinona: That’s what they did to them, see. But I was the one that was born that didn’t catch those Eskimo dances but my dad did. But he told me about the dances, how they used to do it when my grandpa¾they had Wolf Dances too, according to my grandfather. They had these little holes. He said when they had their Wolf Dances, that little hole—vrook—they’d go in there, just like a squirrel goes into a squirrel hole. They never get stuck. Vrook—they’d go right in there, just like that. I didn’t catch them, but I can dance as good as anybody else, that’s what I do just by looking at them. [Laughter.] I know I could do it. Those [dances] were done away with before I was born. But my dad, when he was a young man, there were ceremonial dances and all kinds of fancy clothes to go with them.
Branson Tungiyan: Wales is probably the only community in our region that has started doing their Messenger Feast [again]. It’s a whaling festival with dancing, but it’s very similar to the Messenger Feast that they used to celebrate up in Wales, Diomede and surrounding villages. Perhaps the only other Messenger Feast that I hear of that is celebrated, is up in Barrow in which they bring all of their surrounding villages in. That happens in January, I think.
Marie Saclamana: The ones we had from King Island, the old ones are like these. The rattles are puffin beaks. I wonder if these faded [orange-red color of beaks on similar dance mittens].
Suzi Jones: So when those gloves were new, would the puffin beaks have been orange colored?
Marie Saclamana: Yes. And this is bleached seal skin [light-colored skin at cuff]. This [fur trim at cuff] is polar bear.
Suzi Jones: And what about the main kind of skin that’s the red color?
Marie Saclamana: Seal skin fur inside. Dyed with that . . . .
Jacob Ahwinona: They used alders to dye that skin there.
Marie Saclamana: Yes, nunaġiut [tree bark].
Jacob Ahwinona: That’s what I used to get for my mother. She used to dye skins like that for fancy dress.
Suzi Jones: Marie, do you know who makes these nowadays?
Marie Saclamana: At Nome there were a few women that made them, but they used these [ivory pieces], not puffin beaks. There was—I know Cecilia Muktoyuk made¾
Suzi Jones: Cecilia makes them?
Marie Saclamana: Yes. I could make them too, but I don’t even have time to.
[From discussion with Jacob Ahwinona, Estelle Oozevaseuk, Marie Saclamana and Branson Tungiyan (Kawerak, Inc.) at the National Museum of Natural History and National Museum of the American Indian, 5/07/2001-5/11/2001. Also participating: Aron Crowell and Bill Fitzhugh (NMNH) and Suzi Jones (AMHA).]
1. The comments for this entry includes discussion of similar dance mittens 147351.000 and 198773.000, which were examined together.
The Wolf Dance (also called the Eagle-Wolf Dance and the Box Drum Dance) recreates a traditional story about spiritual ties between human and animal beings. It was performed in Iñupiaq communities of the Seward Peninsula, Bering Strait, and North Alaska coast as part of Kivgiq [the Messenger Feast], which honored animal spirits and created bonds of peace and trade between villages.(1) The Wolf Dance and Messenger Feast both ended in the early part of the 20th century as people adopted Christian beliefs, but have been revived as expressions of cultural identity and community.(2) In 1982, King Island Elder Paul Tiulana organized the first performance of a complete Wolf Dance in about 50 years.(3)
There are many versions of the story behind the dance.(4) Usually, a man is caribou hunting in the mountains and kills a tiŋmiaqpaq [big bird (usually identified as a giant eagle)]. In one variation (from Kotzebue) this huge bird carries a full-sized whale in its claws.(5) The hunter is taken by animal spirits to the dead eagle’s mother, and as they approach he is frightened by the loud sound of her beating heart.
Like all eagles, however, she is a human cloaked in animal form, and speaks to him kindly. The Eagle Mother (or other spirits) teach him the songs and dances that humans must perform to allow her son’s spirit to return home. In the King Island version of this story, the hunter sees a strange sight on his way back to the village—swallows flying into their nest-holes on a hillside and coming out again as wolves.(6) The man returns to his village, and following the eagle’s instructions, sends messengers to other villages to invite them to a feast where the first Wolf Dance is performed.
During the main part of the dance, a platform with holes in front represents the swallow nests (which are also wolf dens), and a wooden box drum beats out the booming sound of the Eagle Mother’s heart. Four men dance in eagle feather headdresses and long mittens decorated with puffin beaks or walrus ivory, which they shake in time to the drum beat.(7) Suddenly the dancers jump backwards, feet first, through the holes in the platform. When they come out again they are wearing wolf heads or masks, just as in the hunter’s vision.
Feathers in front of the masks represent the breath of the wolves. Some believe that if the entire dance is to be performed it must be done perfectly, or the performers face danger, even death.(8)
While dance mittens were usually decorated with puffin beaks or colored walrus ivory, some at Barrow in the 1880s were hung with pieces of copper or empty Winchester rifle cartridges.(9)
1. Bodfish 1991:23-24; Curtis 1930: 146-47, 168-77, 213-14; F. Ellanna 1988c; Giddings 1961:52-60; Kingston 1999; Koranda 1964:18-19; Lantis 1947:67-73; Oquilluk 1973:149-66; Ostermann and Holtved 1952:103-12; Ray 1885:41-42; Spencer 1957:210-28; Van Valin 1941:53-56
2. Kingston 1999: Turner 1996:92-106
3. Kingston 1999:227-56; Senungetuk and Tiulana 1987
4. Compared in Kingston 1999:79-109
5. Curtis 1930:169
6. Kingston 1999:30; Ostermann and Holtved 1952:255-59
7. Kingston 1999:3-7; Koranda 1964:18-19; Oquilluk 1981:154-65
8. Kingston 1999:16-18; Koranda 1964:19-20
9. Murdoch 1892:366; Ray 1885:42