TITLE: Yao Shaman Mask
TYPE: face mask
COUNTRY: Vietnam
SUBREGION: Northern Vietnam
MAKER: Unknown
CEREMONY: Shamanic rituals
FUNCTION: healing; hunting; protection; spirit invocation
AGE: ca. 1960s
OTHER MATERIALS: dyed rice paper

The Yao people inhabit southern China and northern Vietnam, with small enclaves in Thailand, Burma, and Laos. They have syncretic Daoist and animist religious beliefs. Yao shamans use wooden masks to invoke god spirits for protection or successful hunting expeditions. Shamans may also use the masks to heal the sick.

Yao masks often include a “horn” on top of the head that some speculate mimics the topknot (ushnisha) worn by the Buddha. Some Yao masks are painted, but because many Yao lack access to paint, they often cover their masks with dyed paper, as they have done here.


TITLE: Tarahumara Chaperon Mask
SUBREGION: Chihuahua
ETHNICITY: Tarahumara
DESCRIPTION: Chaperon Mask
MAKER: Unknown
CEREMONY: Danza de los Matachines; Pascola; Agriculture; Healing; Funeral
AGE: early 1960s
OTHER MATERIALS: goat leather and hair; iron nails

The Tarahumara are the largest indigenous ethnic group in Chihuahua, Mexico. Among their rituals are the Dance of the Matachines, in which dancers invoke spirits to ensure a good harvest. The dance is performed by a eight to twelve couples to the music of violins, guitars, and flutes. Chaperones, the only masked characters, mark the rhythm by yelling and also ensure all the dancers wear the right garments.

Such masks may also be used in pascola dances celebrating religious holidays, such as the Feast of the Epiphany (January) or Holy Week (February or March). Masked dances may also be used to pray for rain or heal, the sick, or at funerals.


TITLE: Shamanic Mask
TYPE: face mask
SUBREGION: Middle Hills
ETHNICITY: Gurung or Magar
DESCRIPTION: Shamanic Mask
MAKER: Unknown
CEREMONY: Healing; Purification
AGE: mid-twentieth century
MAIN MATERIAL: charred wood

This mask originates in the middle hills area of the Himalaya mountains, either from the Gurung or Magar people. Such masks are among the most primitive in use in the world, and are made by carving wood, coating it with yak butter fat, and charring it over a smoky fire.

The shaman plays an important social role as the channeler of spirits for healing, purification, and protection of those under his supervision. Masks help the shaman embody one of the spirits that surround the living world and use it to heal the sick, drive away evil influences, and guide villagers through changes in their lives (birth, adulthood, changes in social status, death) that might be affected by the spirit world. When hung in a house, the mask serves a protective function.  The Magar and Gurung people use very similar masks for identical purposes.


TITLE: Tibet Lakhe
TYPE: face mask
MAKER: Unknown
CEREMONY: Divination; Healing; Purification; Spirit Invocation
AGE: late 19th century
OTHER MATERIALS: traces of pigment

Shamanic masks arise from animistic religious beliefs rather than Hindu or Buddhist influences. The shamanic influence in Himalayan societies probably arrived from Mongolian nomadic invaders.  The aspiring shaman must depart the community and live in isolation to commune with nature spirits. If the aspirant succeeds, he or she returns to the village with supernatural powers to invoke ancestor and nature spirits that can be either malevolent or protective and turn them to the good of the community.  This gives the shaman healing and divination powers that are used in major life events, such as births, illness, marriage, or death.  Masks are worn during these ceremonies to help the shaman mediate between the material and spiritual worlds.

This mask appears to represent Lakhe, a local demon with a connection to the Hindu god Indra.


TITLE: Iroquois Corn Husk Mask
TYPE: face mask
GENERAL REGION: North American
ETHNICITY: Iroquois (Mohawk)
DESCRIPTION: Corn Husk (Bushy Head) Mask
MAKER: Unknown
CEREMONY: Agriculture; Healing; Secret Society; Spirit Invocation
AGE: 1960s
MAIN MATERIAL: braided corn husks
OTHER MATERIALS: brass bells

The Mohawk people (Kanien’kehá-ka) belong to the Iroquois League (Haudenosaunee) and historically inhabited western New York state, as well as parts of Quebec and Ontario, before being displaced by Dutch and British settlers.  They maintain tribal lands in Ontario and Quebec today, reserved by treaty.

Most Iroquois nations, including the Mohawk, had three medicine societies, one of which was the Society of Husk Faces.  Among the important rituals of the Society are celebration of the Midwinter Festival using the “Bushy Heads” or corn husk masks. They represent earthbound spirits from the other side of the world, where the seasons are reversed (which, in fact, they are south of the Equator). The beings taught the Iroquois the skills of hunting and agriculture. They perform predominantly two dances, known as the Fish Dance and the Women’s Dance. Unlike the False Face dancers, Husk Face dancers are mute. Like the False Face dancers, they can cure the ill by blowing hot ash or sprinkling water on their patients.

The Bushy Heads can be male or female, young or old.  Either men or women may dance in the Husk Face Society, and sometimes they choose masks of the opposite gender to the amusement of the audience. This specific mask adds brass bells to symbolize the tears and runny nose of an old woman spirit.

For more on Iroquois masking traditions, see William N. Fenton, The False Faces of the Iroquois (University of Oklahoma Press, 1987).


TITLE: Yup’ik Transformation Mask
TYPE: face mask
COUNTRY: United States of America
ETHNICITY: Cup’it Yup’ik
DESCRIPTION: Raven Transformation Mask
MAKER: Duwayne Price
CEREMONY: Entertainment; Healing; Spirit Invocation
AGE: 2011
MAIN MATERIAL: yellow cedar wood
OTHER MATERIALS: willow branches; paint

The Yup’ik (or Yupik) people inhabit western and southern Alaska and the Chukotka region of Russia. They currently number some 24,000 individuals who survive in some of the harshest climates of the world. The Yup’ik survived by hunting caribou, rabbits, and marine mammals, especially walrus, seals, and whales. Their traditional religious beliefs are shamanistic, based on the belief that certain animals and birds are sacred. Their masked rituals are oriented toward ensuring a successful hunting and giving thanks for past hunts, storytelling, and healing ceremonies by shamans (angalkuq).

The masks are typically made of wood, decorated with feathers, and painted with only a few colors. They could be carved by men or women under the direction of a shaman. Masks were formerly destroyed after use. Christian proselytization has suppressed the use of masquerade in Yup’ik cultures today, although some segments continue to practice.

This mask depicts raven, a culture hero among the Yup’ik and other northwest coast peoples. He is a trickster capable of transforming shape (here, into a human) and helps humans while typically getting himself into trouble.

For more on Yup’ik masking traditions, see the excellent monograph by Anne Fienup-Riordan, The Living Tradition of Yup’ik Masks (University of Washington Press 1996).


TITLE: Winiama Leprosy Mask
TYPE: face mask
COUNTRY: Burkina Faso
DESCRIPTION: Protection mask representing a leper
MAKER: Unknown
CEREMONY: Healing; Protection & Purification; Secret Society
AGE: ca. 1990s

The Winiama people are a small ethnic group inhabiting Burkina Faso. They share with their neighboring peoples, the Nuna, a highly geometrical masking style. The Winiama believe in a supreme creator god, who can manifest as Su, a sacred mask. Through masked rituals, Su‘s power can be invoked to protect the village, promote fertility, honor the dead, or inflict harm on enemies.

Some masks, such as this one, can be worn only by the highest ranking members of a secret mask society. It would have been worn with a raffia fiber collar and full body suit. The mask is intended to protect the village from the disease of leprosy. The disease was previously thought to be caused by a curse cast by a sorcerer, or by some wrongdoing of the afflicted person.


TITLE: Yei Bi Chei Ganaskidi
TYPE: hood mask
GENERAL REGION: North American
COUNTRY: United States of America
ETHNICITY: Diné (Navajo)
DESCRIPTION: Ganaskidi Mask
MAKER: Unknown
CEREMONY: Yei Bi Chei Dance
AGE: ca. 1970s
MAIN MATERIAL: antelope leather
OTHER MATERIALS: wood; pigment; dyed wool

The Yei Bi Chei (also spelled Yébichai) is a sacred night dance of the Diné (commonly but improperly called Navajo) people of the southwestern United States. The ceremony lasts nine days and has a healing function for tribe members and is generally performed in the winter. The masked dancer personifies the god represented.

Yei Bi Chei masks are always made by skilled medicine men.  In a healing ritual, the patient is sweated, and then songs are sung.  During the singing, the Yei Bi Chei representing the gods treat the patient while calling “wu-hu-hu-hu-u.” The gods represented are speechless and live in sacred caves, mountains and canyons. The male gods wear full leather helmet masks like this one with a ruff of spruce twigs (formerly furs) around the neck.  Female Yei wear square half-masks. Both wear ceremonial regalia and paint their bodies white with clay. On the ninth night, a public dance including six men and six women dance as Yei Bi Chei. There is also a leader, Talking God, and a fourteenth Yei, the Water Sprinkler.  Talking God is distinguished by his white mask with eagle feathers.  The six male Yei carry gourd rattles and spruce twigs or feathers, and make the “hu” call periodically during the dance.

This specific mask represents Ganaskidi, a god of the abundant harvest.

For more on the Yei Bi Chei, see Berard Haile, Head and Face Masks in Navaho Ceremonialism (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1996).


TITLE: Hopi Hon Katsina
TYPE: helmet mask
GENERAL REGION: North American
COUNTRY: United States of America
DESCRIPTION: Hon (Bear) Katsina mask
MAKER: Unknown
FUNCTION: adult initiation; agriculture; celebration; social control; spirit invocation
AGE: mid-twentieth century
OTHER MATERIALS: string; wood; feathers; natural pigment

Among the Puebloan nations of the southwest United States, the Hopi people of Arizona and New Mexico are known for their katsina (also spelled kachina) dolls, given to children to help them recognize the spirits that will protect and benefit the Hopi people. These dolls represent masked dancers who have assumed the form of spirits and gods, dancing at ceremonies from the winter solstice (December) to just after the summer solstice (July). The ceremonies especially focus on the planting season and ensuring a fruitful crop.  The katsina dancers perform important religious and social roles in purifying the village, policing Hopi behavior, and in some cases entertaining the audience.  They are also used in adult initiation ceremonies for boys.

Hopi society is infused with religion, in which the katsinam play a major role during half the year.  There are numerous dances and ceremonies involving the katsinam between February and August, including Soyalwimi (winter solstice) and the Powamuya (Bean Ceremony) in February. Some of these ceremonies are complex, involving night visits by the katsinam to regulate village conduct, adult initiation of boys between 10 and 15 years into the Katsina Society, and dances during the daytime to increase the fertility of the crops and wildlife upon which the Hopi depend.

Hopi masks are almost always helmet shaped and are considered sacred objects belonging to the tribe rather than individual dancers.  This mask is a hon, representing the bear, and was made to fit a young dancer, probably newly initiated into the Katsina society.  There are many different animal katsinam, and these typically dance singly or in a group during the summer day dances.


TITLE: Iroquois False Face Mask
TYPE: face mask
GENERAL REGION: North American
ETHNICITY: Iroquois (Mohawk)
DESCRIPTION: Square Mouth Blower Mask
MAKER: John Elliott, Turtle Tribe (1955- )
CEREMONY: Divination; Healing; Purification; Secret Society
AGE: 2011
MAIN MATERIAL: cedar wood
OTHER MATERIALS: copper sheet; horse hair; paint

The Mohawk people (Kanien’kehá-ka) belong to the Iroquois League (Haudenosaunee) and historically inhabited western New York state, as well as parts of Quebec and Ontario, before being displaced by Dutch and British settlers.  They maintain tribal lands in Ontario and Quebec today, reserved by treaty.

Most Iroquois nations, including the Mohawk, had three medicine societies, one of which was the False Face Society.  It is probably no longer a secret society, because although its membership is limited to initiates who have been cured by the Society or had an important dream, most persons in modern Iroquois communities are apparently aware of the Society’s membership.

Among the important rituals of the False Face Society are village purification of diseases, the healing of sick persons, and facilitation of dream fulfillment during the midwinter festival. The masks worn by the Society take a variety of forms, mostly with blowing lips to blow healing ashes on a sick patient.  The copper eyes convey the spirituality of the mask.

For more on Iroquois masking traditions, see William N. Fenton, The False Faces of the Iroquois (University of Oklahoma Press, 1987).