Published on May 15, 2014 by Amy
Of the many medicinal societies of the Iroquois, the “False Face Society” is the best know. These dramatic wooden Iroquois masks were used to invoke spirits and a dream world and were worn during healing rituals.
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The Spirit Medicine Man, a man blessed with healing powers in response to his love of living things, met a stranger and they had a contest…who could move a mountain. The stranger made the mountain quake. The Medicine Man said that the stranger did indeed have skills, but not enough to move a mountain. The Spirit Medicine Man moved the mountain, but so suddenly, it hit the stranger and left him disfigured. The Spirit Medicine Man healed him and taught him the ways of medicine. The stranger became a very famous healer knows as “Old Broken Nose”. The False Face healing rituals honor Old Broken Nose and the Iroquois masks represent his smashed face.
The ceremony begins with the telling of the myth about Old Broken Nose, then an invocation to the spirits, the ritural, ending with a feast. During the ritual, the False Face members, wearing Iroquois masks, go through every house in the town looking for those who are diseased and ill. If a sick person is found, a healing ritual is performed using turtle shell rattles and blown ashes from tobacco. The community gathers in the longhouse where the False Faces enter, and healings may be requested. It continues with dancing and ends with a ceremonial ash blowing and a feast. It’s performed during the spring, fall, midwinter, and smaller versionof the ceremony are performed whenever a sick individual requires it.
These Iroquois Masks are considered to be “living” and are “fed” with tobacco. The design of the masks may vary, but most share certain features. They have long black or white horse hair. The eyes are deep-set and accented by metal. The noses are bent and crooked. They are painted red and black.
Basswood is usually used for the masks, although not exclusively. An Iroquois walks through the woods until he is moved by a spirit to carve a mask. The spirit inspires the unique elements of the design and the resulting product represents the spirit itself. Carved directly on the tree, it is removed when it’s finished. They are painted red if they were begun in the morning and black if they were begun in the afternoon. The red masks were considered more powerful. There are masks with both colors and they represent spirits with “divided bodies”.
Many Iroquois masks have produced and sold to collectors and tourists. The Iroquois leadership responded with a statement against the sale of these sacred masks and called for their return. Traditional Iroquois object to labeling these as masks since they are not “things” but the living representations of spirits. It is considered sacrilegious to sell, publicly display or mimic sacred False Face Iroquois masks.
Some Iroquois carvers carve “non-live” masks made especially for sale, but traditionalists disapprove of this as well. All are in agreement that it is profaning the Iroquois religion to buy or view living masks, including antiques, or non-native forgeries.