Characteristics of Native American Masks

Written by bridgette redman
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Characteristics of Native American Masks
While some Native American masks are available for sale, some tribes prohibit their display. (Photodisc/Photodisc/Getty Images)

Native Americans have a rich heritage of mask making. Masks served a variety of different purposes and continue as an art form to this day. There are three main types of Native American masks. The first is the basic single face mask. The second is a mechanical mask that features moving parts. The third is a transformation mask which has multiple masks built into it that the wearer reveals at different points during its use.

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Construction Materials

Native Americans used whatever materials were indigenous to the area they lived in. Wood was a popular material. In the Northwest, masks were carved from cedar wood. The Iroquois combined wood and cornhusks. The Navajo and Apache used leather and the Cherokee would use gourds. The Jemez made masks from baked clay. Some tribes used deer buckskin or pigskin. Native artisans decorated the masks with feathers, horsehair, straw, cut glass, turquoise and bone pipe.

Characteristics of Native American Masks
Cherokee would carve and paint large gourds for masks. (Hemera Technologies/ Images)

Depictions on Masks

The two major types of Native American masks are spirit masks and portrait masks. Spirit masks tend to portray animals, spirits and embodiments of nature. This is the more common form of Native American masks. Each animal represented a particular idea and had its own unique characteristics that communicated that idea. Some Native American tribes believed that each clan descended from an animal and that animal was depicted in their spirit masks.

Native Americans made portrait masks to tell stories about particular people. They created these masks in the likeness of a person so the audience would be able to recognise the person. They also used elements that communicated a person's status.

Characteristics of Native American Masks
Spirit masks typically depicted animals. (Hemera Technologies/ Images)

Mask Uses

Performers wore masks to tell stories during traditional and religious ceremonies. The exact meaning and significance of masks varied among different tribes. They could be used for spiritual purposes, healing purposes or simply for entertainment and artistic expression. Some Native Americans today create them for sale as a way of supporting their family and tribe. Other masks, such as the false faces the Iroquois make, are forbidden from being sold or displayed. Some tribes are even petitioning museums to remove those masks from their displays because of their religious significance.

Native Americans traditionally used masks in dances, cultural dramas and ceremonies. Native American secret societies would also uses masks during their meetings, as would shamans.

Marks of Authenticity

The person wishing to collect or purchase authentic Native American masks needs to be wary of knock-offs or imitations. These mass-produced masks do not support Native American artisans nor do they contribute to the sustainability of the art form. Signs that a mask is authentic include that it is made out of indigenous materials and contains no plastic or resin. The carver typically signs the mask. Sellers may provide a certificate of authenticity. The mask should have certain imperfections -- if the bottom is too flat or the lines are too even, it might be a mass-produced piece. The mask should also be a one-of-a-kind design.

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