TITLE: Mardi Gras Wizard
TYPE: face mask
GENERAL REGION: North America
COUNTRY: United States of America
SUB-REGION: New Orleans, Louisiana
ETHNICITY: Mixed
DESCRIPTION: Wizard Mask
MAKER: Vincent Alan Ur, Tulsa, Oklahoma (1966- )
CEREMONY: Mardi Gras
AGE: 2013
MAIN MATERIAL: leather
OTHER MATERIALS: acrylic paint

In Catholic practice, Mardi Gras (“Fat Tuesday”) is the last day of celebration of Carnival before the fasting period of Lent. In the United States, the holiday is nowhere more vigorously celebrated than in New Orleans, Louisiana. There, a two-week Carnival season terminating on Mardi Gras is celebrated with parades composed of elaborate costumes and masks, floats, marching bands, all organize by private “krewes” composed of public-spirited citizens dedicated to preserving the Mardi Gras tradition. Krewes tend to have a fairly constant structure of officers, who frequently ride horseback in handsome costumes and white draped masks, float riders who chuck “throws,” or small gifts such as plastic beaded necklaces, toys, or mementos (usually with the krewe’s name and insignia) into the cheering crowds, and a guest “king” and “queen” of the krewe.

Mardi Gras in New Orleans is also typically celebrated with formal balls held by the krewes in honor of the king and queen, and to celebrate the season.  Mask wearing among street celebrants is common as well. Traditionally, Mardi Gras masks are made of formed and painted leather, and can represent any character from real life or fantasy.  In modern practice, cheap masks mass manufactured of sequined cloth or paper maché covered in dyed feathers have become common.

This specific mask was hand made by a skilled artisan from Tulsa, Oklahoma and brought to New Orleans during Mardi Gras to be sold.



Click above to watch a short documentary about Mardi Gras in New Orleans, Louisiana in 2019 and 2020.

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TITLE: Santa Claus Mask
TYPE: hood mask
GENERAL REGION: North America
COUNTRY: United States of America
SUBREGION: New York City
ETHNICITY: Mixed
DESCRIPTION: Buckram Santa Claus Mask
MAKER: Dessart Brothers
CEREMONY: Christmas
AGE: 1940s
MAIN MATERIAL: buckram
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.

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TITLE: Seneca Hagondes Mask
TYPE: face mask
GENERAL REGION: North American
COUNTRY: United States of America
SUBREGION: New York State
ETHNICITY: Iroquois (Seneca)
DESCRIPTION: Hagondes Mask
MAKER: Unknown
CEREMONY: social control; entertainment
AGE: mid to late twentieth century
MAIN MATERIAL: cotton cloth
OTHER MATERIALS: dyed felt; yarn; thread; shoe strings

The Seneca people belong to the Iroquois League (Haudenosaunee) and inhabited the New York state area before being displaced by Dutch and British settlers.  They maintain tribal lands in the New York area today, reserved by treaty.  Among the spirits familiar to the Seneca is the Hagondes, or “long nose” spirit.  The Hagondes is a trickster, clown, and cannibal who frightens misbehaving children. As such, they have no ritual use, but are instead used as need arises.

In the past, Hagondes masks were made of buckskin, but changes in the Seneca traditional ways of life, including the reduced prominence of deer hunting to tribal life, led the Seneca to adopt new materials in some cases.

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

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REGION: North America
COUNTRY: United States of America
YEAR PRINTED: 1980
VALUE: 15 cents x4

This stamp set was issued by the U.S. government in 1980 to celebrate the masks of the northwest coastal indigenous peoples. Oddly, these nations inhabited western Canada rather than the United States. Masks from first nations primarily resident in the United States, such as the Yupik peoples of Alaska; the Cherokee of the southeastern United States; or the Apache, Diné, Hopi or Zuñi peoples of the southwest, were never commemorated on stamps.

The masks represented include those of the Heiltsuk (also called Bella Bella), Nuxalk (also called Bella Coola), and Tlingit peoples.

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TITLE: Yei Bi Chei Ganaskidi
TYPE: helmet mask
GENERAL REGION: North American
COUNTRY: United States of America
SUBREGION: Arizona
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).

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TITLE: Yup’ik Inua Mask
TYPE: face mask
GENERAL REGION: North America
COUNTRY: United States of America
SUBREGION: Alaska
ETHNICITY: Yup’ik
DESCRIPTION: Inua Owl Mask
MAKER: Unknown
CEREMONY: Entertainment; Healing; Spirit Invocation
AGE: 1970s
MAIN MATERIAL: cedar wood
OTHER MATERIALS: pigment; snow goose feathers

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, but it continues in some segments of the population.

This mask depicts an inua, in the form of an owl. An inua is one of the natural spirits that inhabit humans or animals interchangeably. Appeasing the inua by showing respect and gratitude was considered essential to successful hunts.

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).

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TITLE: Yup’ik Transformation Mask
TYPE: face mask
GENERAL REGION: North America
COUNTRY: United States of America
SUBREGION: Alaska
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).

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