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American Masks

North South and Central American Masks The vast areas of South and North America are home to a fantastic range of American masks. Some of these are traditional dating back centuries others are modern based upon the traditions of Madi Gras and adaptations.

If we extend the range a little into the Caribbean there is also the Trinidad Carnival the most famous of the festivals in this particular culture.

The areas to be covered here for American Masks are;

Mexico / Guatemala

The Pacific North West Coast

To find out about Madi Gras click here Pacific North West Coast Masks

The American masks of the Pacific West Coast of North America are a reflection of the lifestyle, mythology and religious beliefs of the indigenous people. Here you will come across several distinct tribes, the most well known being; Haida, Kwakwaka'wakw ( or Kwakiult ), Tsimshian, Tlingit, Bella Bella, Nuu-chah-Nulth and Makah.

The artistic style of these peoples has a commonality in the use of curved symbolry which occurs within pictures of people and creatures, both real and mythological and surface decoration. Here there are rich formalised traditions developed over many centuries to expressing the individuality of the area.

Art work and in particular carved wooden American masks were collected from this area from the time of the first incursions of western sailors. Sadly the diseases brought by these visitors had a devastating effect, almost wiping out some of the villages.

Later devastation to the cultures were wrought by the church and local officialdom. Children were taken away from their parents and sent to boarding schools to take them away from the tribal ways. Art work and ceremonial regalia were burned driving traditional practices underground.

The survival of the art and traditions of this area are now recognised as important. In particular traditional art work is one manner in which the people of this area can communicate the value of their interpretation of the world to the rest of us.

I had the opportunity to visit this area during 2003. The whole coastal area is extremely verdant. Tall temperate rain forest trees grow to the edge of the sea. Wild life abounds in the sea and forest. Salmon and whales are common in the sea and deer and other game animals fill the forests. The area is abundant in all those things that makes a hunting/collecting way of life the natural choice for the inhabitants. The mountainous terrain also forces settlements to be near the sea or in valleys.

Visiting this area during August we soon became aware of the salmon swimming up river to spawn. These were not large rivers but shallow tidal outlets only a few centimetres deep. Each square metre of water could be populated by as may as 8 fully grown fish. With my untrained eye I noticed at least 5 species of salmon. To fish in these waters would be of no difficulty even for the amateur. As we moved further upstream the final demise of these abundant creatures became noticeable as the smell of rotting fish pervaded the air.

Despite hearing tales of over fishing, such local abundance is hard to visualise unless you have experienced it. In particular having lived in Britain most of my life I have always appreciated wild salmon as an expensive luxury. Here it is so common it rots away after spawning.

As well as appreciating the natural beauty of the area the beauty of local craftsmanship in carving is apparent in the galleries and craft shops of the area. In particular I enjoyed the galleries in Victoria, Vancouver Island. Within this very compact city there are many galleries displaying a whole range of local art. For me the delight was the exquisite American masks and carvings. Some of them were truly of museum quality.

If you are interested in American masks and the art of this area then the galleries of Victoria are a worthwhile starting point. Other galleries can be accessed on cruises to Alaska.

An overview of the American masks of the area

The American masks of North America can be divided into four obvious groups. The links between some of the rituals behind the masks are apparent and there are also strong thematic links to the African masks through the remembrance of and devotion to ancestors. Coming of age and initiation ceremonies also play a part in American Masks.

Only the northern peoples will be considered here.

American Masks of the Inuit

Some experts believe that the masquerade tradition only began with the influence of the European settlers. This is contradicted by the fact that some ivory burial masks have been excavated from 2000 years ago. The practice of dancing with American masks does seem to be a much later development. Yet in contradiction shamanism was a notable part of the cultures in this and surrounding this area. Also the land bridge traversed by the earliest people to spread from Europe in this area forced people to pass this way. I find it difficult to accept that masked shamanistic ceremonies were not a part of the culture.

Dance Masks

Dance masks were generally made for the shaman who linked the community to the spirit world. Most important ceremonies took place in the winter. Typically, American masks represented the spirit of the animals and natural phenomena as visualised by the shaman.

Essentially two dimensional, as opposed to the three dimensional forms of the West coast traditions, the American masks were painted in black, white, red and blue. Constructed from an outer wheel of willow bands, supporting various emblems, surrounding a flat central area representing the face the masks synthesise the human and animal elements.

Some other areas produced less elaborate designs. During the dance the swaying chorus of women would wear small finger American masks.

American Masks of the Pacific North West Coast Masks of this area must be considered in the light of how the local people were forced by the settlers to abandon their own ways. Laws were passed to outlaw the Potlatch and force native children into a Christian way of life and a European style education.

A large seizure of Kwakiutl ritual artefacts was made in 1921 by the police in Alert Bay. Some of the traditions managed to flourish underground, notable the Kwakiutl, where there are direct links between contemporary makers and the older traditions. Modern American masks makers have developed the styles of their forbears as the need to re-establish the old traditions has emerged.

The People of this area used the natural wealth of the land and sea as their means of subsistence. The abundance of natural food allowed it to be stored for the winter months and gave the opportunity for the practice of the elaborate ceremonies during these colder months.

Devastation by Disease

A large number of native people lost their lives due to the introduction of foreign diseases. In particular smallpox decimated the population of many areas. The Haida in particular were reduced from about 8000 before the arrival of Europeans to 800 by 1880.

American Masks and the Potlatch

In each of the tribal areas the potlatch feast had a different status. Commonly they all were a forum for the continuations of the local traditions and had direct links to social order.

American Masks were used during the potlatch to carry out religious and initiations rites, define status and to help increase the impact of the mythical element of the ceremony. A major element of the Potlatch were the display by chiefs of their riches. Lavish gifts were given and precious resources used to show the status of the potlatch giver.

The American masks and the tribes

Throughout the region the most notable common denominator in the type of masks is the portrait mask produced in differing degrees of conformity to the human features. Portrait Masks From the Northwest Coast of America by J.C.H. King is a detailed study of these and is well worth reading.

American Masks and the Tlingit

The Coastal Tinglit live in Alaska rather than Canada but the influence spreads to the Tahtlan tribes in the south. Shaman masks represent the finest work from this area. Potlatches celebrating the memory of dead ancestors, were danced by men and women wearing human face masks bearing the crests of clans and relatives.

Women's American masks also had labrets which according to size were the mark of rank. The numerous masks of the shaman represented the various levels of the spirit world, sky spirits for the upper world, or dead warriors, the sea or water spirits and the land spirits. On the other hand the chief wore masks that portrayed their ancestors.

Tlingit masks, as all American masks of this area and African ones, combined the aim of representing spirits and ancestors in forms that were recognisable to all tribal members.

American Masks and the Haida

The Haida lived on the island now known as Queen Charlotte Island. Of the old masks that have been collected some are known to have been made for sale to the sailors who visited the islands. The human face masks were worn by the chiefs and others of rank during potlatches.

Over fifty different crests have been noted and these decorated the masks of the chiefs. Crests represented animals, natural phenomena and the mythological past. The potlatches were given by the Village or house chiefs and were very well developed forms of feast involving the provider in a huge outlay of goods and food.

The potlatch may have been given for several reasons including, commemorating an ancestor, tattooing a crest or cutting a lip for a labret. Dances similar to those performed by the Kwakiutl where a character possessed by a cannibal spirit ran amongst the guests biting them for the chief to rip up blankets to bandage the injuries in a show of apparent wealth.

American Masks and the Tshimshian

Tsimshian sculptures were mainly crests, the masks were of human form and often used to dramatise initiations. The workmanship is highly regarded for its quality. In parallel with the neighbouring Kwakiutl some of the initiation ceremonies were very dramatic. The craftsmen were given the tasks of making transformation masks and of engineering some elaborate deceptions.

If you want to see some fantastic modern Tshimshian Mask visit the site of Hagwil-Gaa, Ed.E.Bryant the Tsimshian Artist of the Gitando Clan Raven crest Just click here

Novices at initiation ceremonies would be taken through a process where they would disappear through the roof having been captured by a spirit, ?spirited away?, and then to reappear with a magical device presented by the spirit. Even for a modern theatre technician this would be a considerable task. Mask-making virtually disappeared by 1940 after declining from about 1910. A revival was introduced with a training programme begun in 1970.

American Masks and the Nootkan

The best known Nootkan ritual was the "tlonquana" which was a dramatic depiction of the capture of initiates by wolves. The masks used depicted wolves, serpents and wild men. When the initiate had been seized by the wolf he would be given ancestral powers and rights.

Through this means the initiate would be given insight into the adult life and myths of their village and people. The dancing and ceremonies lasted for days. Another occasion on which the masks were worn was the announcement of a potlatch. Because the ceremonies were so detailed they would be arranged up to two years in advance in order to assure there were no clashes.

During a minor feast a female and male masked figure would make a dramatic entrance to announce the coming event. The event would be compared to a feast given in the past and the chief would make a commitment to providing an even more elaborate affair.

American Masks and the Kwakiutl

The Kwakiutl are famed for their transformation masks. These massive American masks, up to eight feet long, are based around an animal form and open up during the ceremony to reveal an inner human character. This method links the human, animal and spiritual aspects of life.

The winter period, called Tsetseka, meaning good humour, was used by the Kwakiutl as time for celebrating. They believed that the spirits who had been at large in the world returned to the village to capture certain members of the population.

The dances were often connected with the initiation of novices. Possessed by wild spirits the novices would disappear into the woods to be given the ancestral rites and then reappear as fully fledged members of the society. The spirit which possessed them was Bakbakwalanooksiwae (Cannibal at the north end of the World ) who inspired them to eat human flesh. There is no record of cannibalism having taken place, only of ritual enactment.

This period of dancing reached its climax as the initiates disappeared into the woods with the Hamasta dancers appearing at the potlatch in their fantastic American masks. These portrayed a great bird monster who ate flesh and the Thunderbird which beat its wings and flashed its eyes.

The dancers were supported by the Noohlmahl, the fool, who, with a large running nose, provided flesh for the Hamasta. In addition he also kept the watchers in order.

A second ritual featured the Warrior at the end of the World, Winalagilis, who was supported by a series of other dancers. Some of the effects were of a spectacular nature with one female helper, Toogwid, being killed by a wedge driven through her head.

Real animal blood was released from bladders and seal eyes were made to fall from the mask to increase the impact of the event. At the end of the performance she was restored. Other rituals also involved elaborate killings and rebirths. The photographs of Edward Sheriff Curtis record some of the costumes and masks of this area go to Edward Curtis Flurry and Co. to find out more and see some of the pictures.

Also try the Library of Congress. American Masks of Central and South America

Central and Southern America have a rich masking history. One of the earliest examples dates from 10000 to 12000 BC. It is a fossilised vertebra of an extinct lama representing the head of a coyote.

More recent records begun during the conquest of the area, contemporary excavations combined with murals by the indigenous people reveal an array of styles and uses. Most of the surviving American masks are apparently burial masks. Often they are carved from some form of rock or made form clay. Skull masks, some jade encrusted, have also been excavated. These are believed to hold the spirits of gods or ancestors and when captured from an enemy take away power.

In contrast to the above the murals and painted vase of the Mayan era show colourful head-dresses and mask used for a variety of occasions. American Masks were not only used for entertainment and religious purposes but also by warriors.

The influx of the conquistadors caused the erosion of the established order and the imposition of the catholic church. The results of this, across the whole of Central and South America, was a synthesis of Pagan and Christian celebrations. Despite the removal of the ruling elite the masking traditions continued especially where associated with agriculture and fertility. (Much the same as in Europe)

The missionaries alarmed at the continuing rituals encouraged the local people to adapt their festivals to Christian ones which fell close to the same time of year. For example in the Andes Intirayami feel close to Carnival.

The pre- Hispanic ceremonies for the dead in Central America coincided with All Souls and All Saints. Just as in the Andes where ancient temples were built upon with the new churches the traditions of masquerade were embodied with in the new festivals.

Interestingly this had already happened as Christianity spread throughout Europe. Within the second layer of change there was already a similar layer of pre-Christian pagan practice. The festivals that developed during these times have, in many cases, endured through to the present day.

American Masks and Guatemala and Mexico

The collectors of old American masks from this area find that even masks from the last 30 years that have been used in festivities fetch good prices.

American Masks from further back depending upon quality, can command even higher prices. If you have a contact in the area it does help. My sister lives in the area and sometimes helps by giving me great masks. I anticipate paying but she is a brilliant sister.

American Masks and Guatemala

There are lots of good contemporary makers. I have bought several masks from the mask maker on the market in Chitchecastenango. I have a story about mask makers in this area especially for those visiting on a tight budget. When ever visiting an area of the world that is different to your own it is useful to get as much local knowledge as possible. However sometimes local knowledge is not enough for something new comes along......

I use this story in my mask making classes to allow people to experience cultural differences.

After a days outing with my sister, Sylvia, her daughter Antonia, my wife Dot and our two sons, Sam and Adam, visiting various interesting places we stopped in Panahachel. It was early evening and we were ready to relax before our evening meal, soft drinks and beer were on offer. We were simply enjoying the evening air, the time of day and conversation. It had been a good day.

Suddenly a local man and his son approached use. He was dominant. "Senor do you want to buy this masks."

Having spent my allowance for the day, and having no interest whatsoever in the mask I said "No".

The mask was a really low grade tourist mask painted blue and Yellow. It had a snake curling around its face and two sheep or goats horns nailed to its head.

Then the negotiating started.

"No thank you!" I responded, politely but firmly.

After a time you do get tired of people selling things to us gringos.

He persisted. "Senor, you can have this mask for 30 quetzales."

"No! I responded I have spent my money for today."

The next response totally threw me.

He said "Senor you can have this mask for 25!"

Now this was really rare. He was dropping the price and I was not even bargaining. Something was definitely wrong.

"No I don't want a mask." was my reply.

His response was, "Senor, you can have this mask for 20."

Now I really was flabbergasted. "No thank you I don't want a mask.

On this process went until we reached 10 Quetzales. At that point I decided that £3.00 in UK pounds meant nothing.

I still have the mask and still tell this story, the difference is now I understand what was going on. Would you like to know?

The reason for my bargain was that it was the last sale of the day. In the process of selling the most important sales are the first of the day because it gives you luck for the day. An earlier start means a more profitable day. Then the next important sale is the last one of the day as this gives the seller luck for the next time he comes to market. When you consider that these people live from the proceeds of their labours and the sales of their labours it is easy to understand.

All my masks have stories around them. Where I got them, why, what they were used for, what I like about them etc. As I have

I used many of my masks with children having stories helps to bring them alive. Funnily enough I often find that my two crude horned mask from Guatemala fetch the most interest. Young children enjoy their direct message. The only other mask that receives as much attention or respect (particularly from teenage boys) is the Marka mask I have which only looks down. It is worn by the man who carries out the circumcision of young initiates. It fair brings a tear to their eyes.

There are so many types of American masks that it seems almost impossible to list each type. Many American masks are danced to day so new mask are always being produced. As with other areas masks are made specially for the tourist. The mask maker in Chichecastenango is worth a visit if you are in Guatemala.

In Guatemala it is possible to discover conquistador masks that mock the invaders. They are often associated with Pedro

Alvarado who died with his soldiers conquered Guatemala. Also seen are devil like mask which have snake symbols associated with healing in most cultures. The deer dance, a reflection of a Spanish tradition, has masked dancers performing in long faced deer mask.

As in Mexico many of the festivals mirror the European church with local additions.

For the collector in both these areas it is possible still to buy good danced masks from source. This is difficult to do with out local help. It is also possible to buy new masks form the carvers which are the ones to be danced. Authenticity in these cases comes form the carver. Even tourist American masks can have a high standard of craftsmanship.

In Mexico the range of carnival and festival masks is vast. Some of the production is personal, the dancer creates his own

mask. Some of the festivities include:-

The Dance of Moors and Christians

The Twelve Peers of France

Carnival before Lent

Animal dances in particular the Tigre dance which is a representation of the jaguar

The Festival of the Crazies ( la fiesta de los locos )

La danza de los vaqueros

Dances for patron saints e.g.. San Isidro Labrador

The Day of the Dead

And more.

To add to this wide range each area has its own interpretation of the costume, dance and mask. For the collector this widens the range considerably.

If you are interested in this particular area may I recommend the following books

Mask arts of Mexico by Ruth Lechuga and Chloe Sayer Thames and Hudson ISBN 0 500 27797 4

Masks the Art of Expression Ed John Mack British Museum ISBN 0 7141 2530 x

American Masks - back to top

©2004 Ian Bracegirdle 1 Elderberry Close East Morton BD20 5WA UK. 01535 692207


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