Alaska Native Performance


These semi-subterranean structures had several tiers of hide-covered benches that created a three-sided or theatre-in-the-round stage setting.  During some performances a central fire pit would throw off a powerful light and produce large and looming shadows on the soot covered driftwood, hide and earth structure.  During some performances, when the fire pit was covered with planks, seal oil lamps provided an equally dramatic source of light.   There were two tunnel entrances used to keep the arctic weather out, one entrance was for general public use the other tunnel entrance was connected to the fire pit and provided a draft for the fire.  Through the fire pit entrance, performers and shamans would enter, for it was thought that the fire pit tunnel was a pathway to the lower world.   Spectacular entrances were made from the skylight or smoke hole, thought to be an entrance from the upper world.  The upper and lower worlds were thought to be places where certain spirits dwelled, and where spirits were aligned more with the elements and hierarchy rather than with the heaven and hell connotations of Christianity.   In this way the kashim, or community house, became a living metaphor.   The community, gathered tightly together in an earth structure, was acted upon by the spirits from above, below and within the shadows of the fire flames.  (Curtis, 1930:9-12)   


Reinventing Traditional Alaska Native Performance


Yup'ik and Inupiat Traditional Masks


Inuipiq Kiviq, 2017, Barrow, Alaska. Photos: Bill Hess

The theatre of the Alaskan Eskimo was a theatre of visions and myths and functioned in a time when the world was a shroud of mystery filled with spirits. It was a theatre tradition that originated in the time before time.  It was a time when humans could easily transform into animals and animals into humans. When myths were formulating the earth's shape and its ways.   A millennium before Aristotle's Poetics, this was a theatre of the earth, for those who lived by, off of and with the earth.  And like the earth was practiced as a dynamically changing medium of performance expression. The theatre of the Alaskan Eskimo was a theatre of the land, its elements and the animals and humans that inhabited that reality.  It was a theatre interlinked to its culture as only aboriginal performance can be; separate but inseparable, a part, but of the whole.


Traditional Alaskan Eskimo Theatre: Performing the Spirits of the Earth