TITLE: Haida Dogfish
TYPE: face mask
SUBREGION: British Columbia
MAKER: Dalbert A. Weir (Masset, Queen Charlotte Islands, 1941- )
CEREMONY: Potlatch
AGE: 2007
MAIN MATERIAL: cedar wood

A potlatch is a culturally important ceremony among the coastal indigenous Americans of British Columbia, held on many different occasions.  It could be held to celebrate a family member’s change in social status, such as a marriage, birth, death, or initiation into adulthood.  It could also be held to restore a person’s prestige after a loss in dignity, such as falling out of a canoe or making a hunting error.  The ceremony could last for one day or as long as three weeks, depending on the occasion and the wealth of the giver.

A potlatch typically included three important components: a feast, entertainment, and gift giving to the guests.  The entertainment consisted of singing and masked dancing.  The more lavish the gifts, feast, and entertainment, the greater the prestige gained by the giver.  Because masks and costumes were expensive and time-consuming to make, larger and more elaborate masks raised the prestige of the potlatch giver.  The masks themselves represented totemic animals such as the killer whale, raven, beaver, or shark, or else mythical figures and beasts, such as the KomokwaDzunukwa or Bukwus. This mask represents the dogfish, a small relative of the shark that is an important totem for the Haida people.  The Haida believe that they had a female ancestor who could transform herself into a dogfish to experience the undersea world.

For more on masks of the coastal peoples of western Canada, see Peter MacNair, Robert Joseph & Bruce Grenville, Down from the Shimmering Sky: Masks of the Northwest Coast (Vancouver: Douglas & McIntyre Ltd., 1998) and Edward Malin, A World of Faces: Masks of the Northwest Coast Indians (Portland: Timber Press, 1978).


TITLE: Kokushiki-Jo
TYPE: face mask
DESCRIPTION: Kyodomen Kokushiki-Jo Mask
MAKER: Habu Mitsuma
CEREMONY: Okina (翁)
FUNCTION: agriculture; purification; spirit invocation
AGE: 1960s
OTHER MATERIALS: animal hair; pigment

The Okina is an ancient Japanese dance ritual that uses forms of mask known as kokushiki-jo and hakushiki-jo. These are among the oldest masked characters in Japanese ceremonies, originating as folk masks (kyodomen) used in ancient sarugaku (“monkey music”) theatre (circa 1000-1300 CE) and migrating to the formal stage for use between noh plays. The kokushiki-jo and haukshiki-jo both represent old men with divine qualities, but with slight differences in appearance. Unlike noh theatre, the Okina dance is mute, and it is performed by a kyōgen performer rather than a noh actor.

The Okina plays an important ceremonial role in the Shinto religion, because the kokushiki-jo performs the Sanbasō, a prayer-dance celebrating the emperor’s peaceful rain and seeking blessings for a bountiful harvest.

To watch a short documentary about Japanese Nogaku (Noh drama and Kyogen plays), click above.


TITLE: Santa Claus Mask
TYPE: hood mask
COUNTRY: United States of America
SUBREGION: New York City
DESCRIPTION: Buckram Santa Claus mask
MAKER: Dessart Brothers, Brooklyn, NY
CEREMONY: Christmas
AGE: 1940s
OTHER MATERIALS: paint; flannel hood; cotton batting

Christmas is the Christian celebration of the birth of Jesus of Nazareth, the principal Christian prophet, observed on the 25th day of December.  It is one of the most important Christian holidays.  In North American observance, heavy emphasis during the ceremony is placed on the Christian virtues of generosity and charity, expressed in part by gift-giving.  Gifts are left for family members in stockings symbolically hung to dry a chimney mantel or under a decorated tree.

The decorated tree is among the North American traditions brought over from Germany, where pre-Christian peoples had decorated trees with candles to celebrate Yule, the mid-winter ceremony.  To emphasize the additional Christian virtue of humility, gifts were not attributed to the actual giver, but to a supernatural visit from Saint Nicholas, a fourth century Greek bishop, whose image merged with the gift-giving Germanic father of gods, Wodan (Norse Odin), to because Santa Claus.

Like Wodan, Santa Claus has a long white beard and flies through the night sky to bring gifts. Germanic peoples have long celebrated in December by dressing up to represent some form of the Santa Claus character, and the Christians of the United States adopted the custom, primarily to present children with the image of a benevolent old man at parades, shopping malls, and parties.

This mask is an inexpensive, mass-produced buckram version, produced by the Dessart Brothers of Brooklyn, and presumably designed for private parties or home use, better to disguise the wearer. This specific mask was used in a classroom in the Midwest in the 1940s and 1950s for the benefit of school children.


TITLE: Hopi Koyemsi Katsina
TYPE: hood mask
GENERAL REGION: North American
COUNTRY: United States of America
DESCRIPTION: Koyemsi (Mudhead) Katsina Mask
MAKER: Unknown
CEREMONY: Katsina Dance
AGE: mid-twentieth century
OTHER MATERIALS: cloth wadding; string; clay

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 the Powamuya (Bean Ceremony) in February and talangva (summer solstice). 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.

Both the Hopi and Zuñi nations use the koyemsi katsina. Koyemsi translates roughly to “mudhead.” The character has slightly different meanings to different nations. To the Hopi, the koyemsi represents the first being to emerge onto the earth from a sipapu, which is why he is covered in mud. Unlike other katsinas, he does not represent a god spirit.  The koyemsi appears in most dances and plays multiple important social roles, from policing behavior to clowning. The koyemsi may drum, dance, play games with the villagers, or award prizes for the races and guessing games they organize. For example, a koyemsi leads the Hototöm (racing katsinam), who challenge village men and boys to races in early spring, and he carries food prizes wrapped in a blanket for the winner. Koyemsimu also organize groups of singers, who sing to other katsina groups and bring them gifts.


TITLE: Cherokee Bison Mask
TYPE: face mask
COUNTRY: United States of America
SUBREGION: North Carolina
DESCRIPTION: Booger mask in the form of a bison
MAKER: Allen Long (Cherokee, North Carolina, 1917-1983)
CEREMONY: Booger Dance
AGE: ca. 1970s

In the Eastern Cherokee Nation, the booger (tsu’nigadu’li) dance forms an important part of the winter celebration to discourage evil spirits from disrupting the coming growing season. The boogers themselves represent the evil spirits, and they traditionally portrayed grotesque faces seeking to fight, chase women, and create general havoc. Following colonization, the booger dancers focused their misdeeds especially on satirizing the insolence, foolishness, and lust of European colonists toward the Cherokee women.

Booger masks could be made of wood, gourds, or carved wasp nests.  This specific mask was made by a famed carver, Allen Long.

For more on Cherokee masked dance, see Frank G. Speck & Leonard Broom, Cherokee Dance and Drama (University of Oklahoma Press 1951).


TITLE: Rom Mask
TYPE: helmet mask
COUNTRY: Vanuatu
SUBREGION: Ambrym Island
ETHNICITY: Melanesian (Ni-Vanuatu)
MAKER: Unknown
PURPOSE: secret society; social control; spirit invocation; status
AGE: ca. 2000
MAIN MATERIAL: palm spathe
OTHER MATERIALS: bamboo, coconut fiber, hemp, leaves, feathers, pigment

The Rom Kon ceremony is performed by male secret society members to the beat of drums and seed shakers.  The remainder of the costume is composed of dried banana leaves, and each Rom dancer holds a wooden carving that symbolically represents a weapon.  The Rom dancers themselves represent evil spirits who form a wide circle filled by Namba dancers.  The participants sing songs and chant stories as they dance.  Gradually the pace builds until the ceremony reaches a loud and feverish pitch, then ends.

The right to make or wear a sacred mask carries high costs in Ambrym society.  Rom masks invoke the spirit of ancestors (generally the grandfather) and are important agents of social control.  The masks and costumes must be destroyed or disposed of after a dance to ensure the spirit does not haunt the owner.  The dances only occur between July and September, or at special celebrations, such as for the for the appointment of a chief.


TITLE: Bwa Owl Mask
TYPE: plank mask
COUNTRY: Burkina Faso
DESCRIPTION: Owl spirit plank mask
MAKER: Unknown
CEREMONY: Initiation, Funeral, Agriculture
AGE: 1990s

Among the southern Bwa people, masks typically represent bush spirits that the wearer invokes for the benefit of his community, such as the hawk, crocodile or buffalo.  Bwa masks, in common with the neighboring Gurunsi and Nuna people, are characterized by highly geometric designs and dichromatic patterns of alternating dark wood and white kaolin clay.  Such masks are commissioned and owned by clans for bringing blessings to the village during funerals and the planting and harvesting of crops.  It may also be used during adult initiation rituals.  The mask is worn by a skilled dancer who secures it over his face by biting down on a rope on the mask’s back.  His body is concealed by a bushy costume of raffia fiber, traditionally dyed red or black, but now also seen in other dyes.  Accompanied by musicians playing flutes and drums and women singing songs, the masquerader dances rapidly, imitating the behavior of a spirit.  The use of wood masks is relatively recent among the Bwa, who traditionally used plant fibers and leaves instead.

This specific mask represents the owl, a bird considered to have great mystical power by the Bwa people.  The owl eyes appear on other animal spirit masks as well due to the owl’s exceptional importance to Bwa mythology.