Masks were worn or used in smaller sizes by members of secret societies who danced on ceremonial occasions. The dancers were believed to be possessed by various spirits such as the Wolf, Grizzly Bear, Fire-throwing spirit, Gambling spirit, and others. Masks often represent spirit creatures, animals, and myths. When used in the Potlatch or other West Coast Native ceremonies, dancers take on the personification of the creatures that the masks represent and enter the supernatural world during the dance. Wood is the most widely used material, but the ingenuity of Native Americans has been applied to a variety of masks made of cloth, corn husks, leather, gourds, shell, feathers, and metal. The majority of masks combine several materials. Most masks were and are part of regalia worn in ceremonies, chiefly spiritual. Native peoples of the Pacific Northwest, winter is a time of dance and performance and to tell to the youth their traditional heritage by the usage also of smaller masks that are not ment to be worn on the body.
Among Northwest Coast peoples, including the: haida, Nuxalks, Kwakwaka’wakw, Makah, and Nuu-chah-nulth for these native nations masks are an essential part of important winter ceremonials, which reenact the adventures of hero-ancestors and spirit beings in the mythological past. The rights to these ritual dances have been passed down in families as treasured privileges, and while the themes are similar, the ceremonies vary in detail from region to region.
In Alaska, Yup’ik , Inuit and Inupiaq peoples honor animals in a variety of ceremonies, the most important of which are the great midwinter hunting festivals. Historically, masks carved by spiritual intercessors or under their supervision were worn, or used if in smaller sizes alike those presented in this “Art gallery” in special dances to please the spirits. As intermediaries between people and spirits, spiritual intercessors learned the wishes of game animals from visions and trips to the spirit world. Masks could also represent the spiritual intercessor’s spiritual helpers, which he would try to influence in times of need. Sometimes hung in houses to ward off harmful spirits, masks were also occasionally placed with the dead or used in non-spiritual contexts for popular entertainment.