Masking (Muskalataq) is a custom that was once common to the entire Aleut region, but its practice has been minimized or abandoned in most villages, at least until the current revival in Native traditions and language. It appears to have its roots in Russia. It is a folk tradition, not associated with the church but not frowned upon. However, on the Eve of Theophany (epiphany) people are supposed to cleanse themselves by taking a banya (maqiq) or, in the old days, by jumping into the ocean and then going to the church, still wet, to do penance. According to John Klashinoff of Nuchek, there was a saying:
Maskalatalet maqilahtut, qaqimalet naluwaluteng. Those who have masked take banyas, those who have played the devil swim in the ocean.
“Playing the devil” is condoned neither by the church nor by the community. They say that in the old days those who impersonated devils used to dance on the red-hot stove. They also say that you should not go off with one who has not unmasked. This may be a devil in disguise, who will lead you into the woods where you will lose your way and perish unless you come to your senses.
The Muskalataq tradition is strongest in the Kenai Peninsula villages of Nanwalek and Port Graham. Here Muskalataq begins after the last round of slawiq on the evening of January 9 and continues every evening until the Eve of Theophany on January 18, which marks the end of the Christmas season. The maskers (Muskalatalhit) get dressed at home, or more commonly at the house of someone who has a lot of masking gear (maskalatahsutet), start dressing themselves with what ever they want and putting on masks. The whole body is supposed to be covered so that the masker is not identifiable on sight- but of course people usually recognize the dancers by their posture and mannerisms. Then the maskers go up to the community hall to dance. When they enter, they bow to the spectators and the band. The band plays guitars and when possible an accordion or organ; they used to play banjos and mandolins as well. There is a special set of tunes that are played at this time; such a tune is called a Prazdnik (Praznik). After dancing for a spell, the maskers usually go back to take a break and dress in a different costume, then return to dance again. Masking often goes on in this way until late at night.
On Russian New Year (Nuwikutaq, January 14), these two communities each put on a pageant at their community hall. This pageant is called Nuwikutaq. The performers belong to two factions. On one side are one or two sergeants-at- arms or MPs (sutiyaq/sutiyak), the New Year (Nuta’aq), and twelve women dressed in white gowns, representing the months (Tanqit). On the other side are the Old Year (Anguteq) and the male clowns called the Old Ladies (Ucinguhuat); unlike the New Year and his allies, they wear masks. The performers enter in this order, bow to the onlookers, circle the room, and leave. The New Year is dressed in white and carries a paddle; the Old Year is dressed in black, has a pack on his back made to look like a hunchback, and uses a cane. This is the firs of twelve rounds. In each succeeding round, things get a bit livelier. The New Year dances with each of the Months, as eventually do the Old Year and the Old Ladies. The Old Ladies begin to talk to the audience; these are the only performers allowed to speak, and they must speak only in Alutiiq. As the evening progresses, they get rowdier; they start teasing and flirting and pestering the New Year. When the MPs sound the whistle to go out, they refuse to leave with the others, so that the MPs have to hunt them down and eject them from the hall, sometimes more than once. The New Year rushes at the Old Year and hits him on the back with his paddle; when this happens, the MPs shoot their guns once all the performers are outside.
The final round ends at midnight, signaled with three gunshots. These signify the victory of the New Year over the Old Year. Then all the performers reenter the hall, and the Old Year and Old Ladies unmask themselves. Everyone faces the icons and prays the Lord’s Prayer. After this, the band starts to play a waltz, and all the performers greet one another with a kiss and dance with one another in order, starting with the New and Old Years. After this, the audience is free to join in. in this way, the two factions are reconciled, and peace is restored to the community for the New Year.
The Nuwikutaq pageant is unique to the communities of Nanwalek and Port Graham. People from Kodiak remember that a similar but much less elaborate celebration used to be held on Russian New Year. The origin of this ceremony is not clear. It may be that it has its roots in Russian folk traditions, or that it continues in much revised form an ancient Alutiiq winter celebration. Or it may incorporate elements of the traditional Alutiiq ceremonies, reinterpreting them in terms of the Western conception of the New Year, much as the Western European Christmas holiday has incorporated element of the pre Christian ritual practices of the winter solstice, such as the Christmas tree and yuletide fire. During the ancient hunting festival, as described above, young women dressed in fine cloths danced with men, some of whom carried paddles. These call to mind the months and the New Year of the Nuwikutaq pageant and the Old Year and Old Ladies are reminiscent of the men representing devils in the hunting festival. Whatever the history of the Nuwikutaq pageant may be, it has evolved into a special celebration that is one of the highlight of the year for the Kenai Peninsula Alutiit and epitomizes the melding of cultures that has produced the modern Alutiiq way of life.
Copyright The Smithsonian Institute, Crowell, Aron (2001) Looking Both Ways - Heritage and Identity of the Alutiiq People Pg. 215-218