Masks of the World: North America

Hi Everyone! Today we are going to take a look at some indigenous North American Masks. It is just a small sample, so please follow the links if you want to explore further. Below you will also find craft and activity prompts,  links to a dance tutorial and a recipe for fry bread.

Native American masks, as with most things associated with Native American culture, varied between the hundreds of tribes that once occupied many regions of the North America. They had many different purposes including its medicinal and spiritual uses and sometimes just for entertainment. Many tribes believed that when certain animal masks were worn during specific tribal rituals that the person who wore the mask would take on certain characteristics of the animal depicted, they believed that the spirit of the animal would enter that person while they were in the mask. Many of the masks represented things like strength and wisdom. Some masks were crafted as portraits and were intended to portray an important figure in Native American culture. Some were created for the sole purpose of secret society rituals. These secret societies were sometimes shaman societies, war societies, or societies for inducting young people into the tribe with special conjurations. 

Native American Shamans (It is believed a Shaman is someone who can communicate with the spirit world) would practice  special rituals and would wear the masks to act different stories, such as stories of creation or war. Some other uses for these masks were for use in what the Native Americans called potlatch ceremonies: festivals where the chief of one tribe would give a gift to another tribe’s chief. The tribal chiefs also wanted to give great gifts to show off the tribes’ wealth to the other chief. During these ceremonies both tribes would feast and then a ceremonial dance would take place where dancers would wear these beautiful ceremonial masks and act out stories.


Iroquois False Face Mask (Northeast)

The False Face Society is probably the best known of the medicinal societies among the Iroquois, especially for its dramatic wooden masks. The design of the masks is somewhat variable, but most share certain features. The eyes are deep-set and accented by metal. The noses are bent and crooked. The other facial features are variable. The masks are painted red and black. Most often they have pouches of tobacco tied onto the hair above their foreheads. Basswood is usually used for the masks although other types of wood are sometimes used. Horse tail hair is used for the hair, which can be black, reddish brown, brown, grey or white. The masks are carved directly on the tree and only removed when completed. Masks are painted red if they were begun in the morning or black if they were begun in the afternoon. Because the trees are alive, they are considered to be living and breathing. They are served parched corn mush and given small pouches of tobacco as payment for services.

Source: -Bob Ibold, Masks of the World


Image Source:

Iroquois corn husk mask (Northeast)

There is a traditional society among many of the Iroquois tribes called the Husk Faces or Bushy Heads. Even today these woven masks are used in ceremonies. The masks made of corn husks, also called bushy-heads or husk faces, are sometimes associated with the Husk Face Society. These masks usually embody, or are inhabited by spirits associated with the corn harvest or with growing grains. The masks are often woven by women, but are worn only by men during curing ceremonies. During ceremonies or dances, tobacco bags are often sacrificed or tobacco is burned for the husk faces. Corn husk masks frequently appear in conjunction with the wooden False Face masks. Husk face dancers do not carry a rattle or staff like the False Faces, but they do dance with a mush stirring paddle or digging stick, with which they can beat out a rhythm. Corn husk mask dancers can deliver messages about the harvest, or prepare the people for the ‘grandfathers’ the False Faces.

For more information visit:


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Kwakwaka’wakw Northwest Coast transformation masks, Vancouver Island BC 

These masks transform: usually an animal changing into a mythical being or human or one animal becoming another. Masks are worn by dancers during ceremonies, they pull strings to open and move the mask—in effect, animating it. For example, in the Eagle mask from the collection of the American Museum of Natural History, you can see the wooden frame and netting that held the mask on the dancer’s head. When the cords are pulled, the eagle’s face and beak split down the center, and the bottom of the beak opens downwards, giving the impression of a bird spreading its wings. Transformed, the mask reveals the face of an ancestor.

The Kwakwaka’wakw are one of many indigenous groups that live on the western coast of British Columbia, Canada. The mythology and cosmology of different Kwakwaka’wakw Nations (such as the Kwagu’ł (Kwakiutl) or ‘Namgis) is extremely diverse, although there are commonalities. For instance, many groups relate that deceased ancestors roamed the world, transforming themselves in the process (this might entail removing their animal skins or masks to reveal their human selves within). For more info check out this page from Khan academy:

Check out this video: of the mask that inspired the Seattle Seahawks football team logo

Watch a short documentary showing the  Kwakiutl dance ceremonies:

Image Source: American Museum of Natural History + Brooklyn Museum

Cherokee Booger Dance Mask (Southeast Woodlands)

Dances were and still are an integral part of Cherokee social and ceremonial life. In the Booger Dance, men wearing ragged clothing and masks interrupted an evening of social dancing. When asked who they were and what they came for, the boisterous intruders gave outlandish names and tried to start fights. Each intruder then performed a solo, often ribald, dance. As the Cherokee believed that illness and death emanated from beyond their settlements, the intruders are thought to have represented outside forces—specifically, European-Americans who encroached on Cherokee homelands and disrupted tribal life. The masks could be fashioned from gourds, animal skins, or buckeye wood with fur trimmings, often with exaggerated human features.

. For more info and a Booger dance inspired musical performance see


Image Source: Museum of the American Indian, Smithsonian Institute

Pueblo Kachina Masks (Four Corners Region):

These were thought to have therapeutic uses. Spirits called katsinas (kachinas), who—tradition holds—first brought rain to the Pueblo tribes (primarily Hopi), are said to have left their masks behind when sent to dwell in the bottom of a desert lake. The masked dancers embody the return of the kachinas to help bring the rain. There are more than 400 different kachinas in Hopi and Pueblo culture which vary from one pueblo community to another. Kachinas are expressed in three different ways — the spiritual or supernatural deities; the masked dancers who represent kachinas at religious ceremonies; and kachina dolls or carvings.

For more info on the ceremonies, visit this website:

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Navajo Masks (Southwest) :

The masks were worn during battle, shaman and initiation ceremonies, and religious rituals. Often, Navajo people wore them during ceremonies that involved dancing and singing. They used them to enhance the stories that they were telling through the dances and songs performed. The masks symbolized the transformation that a person made into the spirit world, and it let the personator identify with natural forces that were attempting to control him. In fact, Native Americans held the belief that the spirit that the mask represented took over the mask wearer’s body. 

Navajo also people gave masks as gifts and used them for decorative purposes. Some people created masks as portraits that portrayed someone important in the Native American culture. The detail of these masks was extensive. Some of them even included a labret (a lower lip piercing), in addition to neck furs and hats. Navajo masks included things like spruce branches and paint.

Some masks were designed to depict gods like the mischievous rain god known as Tonenili; Haschebaad, a generous female god; and the god of harvests, Ganaskidi.

The mask representing Haashchʼééłtiʼí, Talking God, and the Mask representing the younger twin, known both as Naʼídígishí, He Who Cuts Life Out of the Enemy, and Tóbájíshchíní, Born of Water were both used in the Navajo Night Chant Ceremony,

For more info on the Navajo Creation myth, go here:é_Bahaneʼ


If you could make a transformation mask, what would it be and turn into? If you were to transform into an animal, which one would you choose?

If you wanted to make a mask to control the weather, what would it do? What would it look like?


If you can get your hands on some corn husks you can make these cute corn husk dolls:

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Or you can craft a Dream Catcher with beads, feathers and a plastic ring or bracelet. You could probably also form a hoop using long thin branches or reeds for a more natural approach:

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Origins of the Dreamcatcher:

Elementary school kids can make this weaving structure inspired by Navajo culture using recycled materials:


Can you make your own personal logo based on a mask from these images like the eagle in the transformation mask?

Satire is when you accent or exaggerate something unpleasant to make fun of it, like the Booger Mask. Can you draw a satirical image of something you don’t like?


A Powow is a celebration of American Indian culture in which people from diverse indigenous nations gather for the purpose of dancing, singing, and honoring the traditions of their ancestors. The term powwow, which derives from a curing ritual, originated in one of the Algonquian nations of the Northeast Indians. Here is a Basic Powwow Dance Tutorial:


Here is a recipe for Native American fry bread:


It may be made with yeast and cornmeal, while some recipes add shortening, lard, or another fat, or include an egg. This recipe is made with all-purpose flour and baking powder, creating a very simple fry bread with no extra fat or eggs.

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