Art Reviews

Vancouver Island Tribe Ceremonial Dance Mask, circa, 1900.

Native American dance masks served many purposes for the indigenous peoples who inhabited the Vancouver Island and Pacific Northwest regions. Each mask was unique to the dancer as well as the tribe. It could represent a transition within the council, the birth of a child, the death of an elder; they were also used as a social status symbol within each tribe. Depending on the type of material that made up each mask, this was an accurate sign of the position of the dancer among the people. Special masks were created for the chiefs of each tribe; in many cases, these masks were exchanged with other chiefs of other tribes to preserve peace and prosperity for all the peoples of the lands. Because of their powerful status as a chief, their mask was usually that of an eagle head, which symbolized authority and strength and wisdom. Most of the masks were made from wood, leaves, fur, straw, and animal hide (in some rare cases, when it was accessible, leather was used). 

These masks can represent the following:

Characteristic

Portrait

Status

Spirit

Animal (In some cases, the animals represented direct descendants of the tribe.)

 

Masks could be:

Single-made from a single piece of wood.

Mechanical-have moving parts like eyes that open and shut.

Transformational-when closed one mask could reveal another.

 

Colors of the mask:

Red-symbolizing happiness and faith.

Yellow and Orange-symbolizing intellect.

Black-symbolizing victory and success.

White-symbolizing light and purity.

Blue-symbolizing intuition and wisdom.

However, it should be noted that dance masks were not just limited to First Nations people. Among the Hopi and Pueblo tribes, masks were a sacred part of worship and dance ritual as well. They create masks that reveal their devotion to the ‘Kachinas’ a spirit being that dwells among the people during the first half of the new year and brings about protection and prosperity within the tribes. (A more famous representation are the infamous Kachina Dolls made by The Hopi.)

Among the Iroquois and Algonquin tribes of the Northeastern United States, they are called ‘False-Face’ masks. These types of masks were used in healing rituals invoking the spirit of an old hunchbacked man by offering him corn mush. The man who is assigned to create the mask is believed to be guided by this ugly looking spirit to find the right wood in the forest to serve his purpose; the mask, however, is carved right out of a living tree, thereby having a living manifestation of a living being. When the mask is not worn, it is treated as a living person, even as far as having its own room in the house. 

 

 

 

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