Yup'ik Memorial Figure - Western Alaska

Among the Yup’ik of western Alaska, deceased members of the community were prepared for their journey to the afterlife by way of strictly observed rites. Often inhumed in a small box (the body compressed into a crouching jack-knife position), the deceased was laid to rest with all their earthly belongings, often in a set of new clothing sewn purposely for the burial. In some areas, the various tools, hunting equipment, weapons and ornaments would be strewn above the grave or lashed to a vertical post that served as a marker. Piles of stones sometimes covered a burial, or the deceased might be propped against a stake in the open when materials for an interment were particularly scarce.

While these graves were usually devoid of imagery, burials in the region of the lower Kuskokwim River involved the erection of a prominent wooden panel above the coffin, to the face of which was attached a wooden figure with two or more arms, clothed and sometimes adorned with jewelry. Tools and other objects were often held in the figure’s hands. These grave images were carved by relatives of the deceased, and additional figures might be carved many years after the burial by a descendant and placed on the earth next to the grave panel.

The grave figure presented here is a fine example of this extremely rare type, consisting of the main bust with simply rendered features, flat profile, and bone set in the eyes and mouth. Contrasted against the dark surface of the weathered wood, the intent, far-reaching gaze of the figure’s light eyes is dramatically emphasized. The torso post is carved with two rectangular slots on either side, where arms were once attached.

19th century
Wood, bone
14 5/8” h
- Jeffrey Myers, New York
- Faith-Dorian and Martin Wright Collection, New York

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