Published on January 30, 2012 by Casey
Masks have a long tradition with Native Americans. The use of Indian masks varied from tribe to tribe. American Indian masks are still used for decorations, dances and cultural performances today. Traditional Native American masks, whether relics or those made by modern artists, have an inherent beauty, which can be terrifying, silly or spiritual.
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The Northwest Coast Indian tribes are famous for making totem poles. However, they also made masks that set the standards for other Native American masks. Even though each tribe in this group had its own individual nuances, the tribes’ masks also had similarities that made their masks immediately identifiable as being Northwest Coast Indian.
Northwest Coast Native Americans made three kinds of masks: the single face mask, the mechanical mask and transformation masks. The single face mask was the simplest of the group. It was carved from one solid piece of red cedar.
The mechanical mask had moveable parts. This type of mask was developed after Europeans had made contact with Native Americans. American Indians had not yet developed string or hinges that were needed to make this type of mask.
Transformation masks consisted of two and sometimes three masks. When closed, a transformation mask made from two masks showed a bird or an animal. When open, a mask of a man appeared.
The Hopis are well known for their kachina dolls. The Hopis also made kachina masks for traditional dances. When dancers wore their masks and costumes, they became “channels” to the kachina spirits, essentially becoming the spirits themselves. When not in use, Kachina masks were treated as if they were human. The masks were stored so that they could breathe and were also fed corn pollen so that they wouldn’t be hungry.
The most recognizable kachina mask today would be the helmet mask. The Hopi made other types of kachina masks, such as leather masks, half-masks, spherical masks and circular masks. The colors used to paint the masks indicated the direction from which the kachina came. Special symbols showed which particular kachina the mask represented.
The Iroquois are well known for their “False Face Society” masks. The False Face Society was a prominent medicinal and healing society. False face masks were only used for important religious ceremonies.
False face masks have found their way into museums and into private hands. Since traditional Iroquois consider these masks to be living beings and not inanimate objects, tribal leaders are trying to recover these masks so that the masks can be properly revered.