False Face Masks
“False Face Society Masks” are best-known for their role as part of the ritual in the medicinal communities among the Iroquois, a Native American confederacy. These masks were used in healing rituals that invoke the spirit of an ancient hunch-backed healing man called “Old Broken Nose.”
During healing ceremonies, a carved “False Face Mask” is worn to represent spirits in an ancient tobacco-burning and prayer ritual. “False Face Masks” are carved in living trees, then cut free to be painted and decorated. The design of the masks is somewhat variable, but most share certain common features. The eyes are deep-set, and the noses are bent and crooked.
The masks are painted red and black. Often they have pouches of tobacco tied onto the hair above their foreheads. Horsetail hair is used for the hair, but before the introduction of horses by the Europeans, corn husks and buffalo hair were used.
When making a mask, a “False Face Society” member walks through the woods until he is moved by the healing spirit of “Old Broken Nose” to carve a mask from a tree. The unique elements of the mask’s design represent the spirit himself, imbued with his powers.
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 started in the afternoon.
Because the masks are carved into trees that are alive, they are similarly considered to be living and breathing. They are served dried white corn mush and given small pouches of tobacco as payment for services.
Various names are used to refer to this being among the Iroquois communities. In English, he is most often referred to as merely “False Face.”
“False Faces” represent grandfathers of the Iroquois and are thought to reconnect humans and nature and to frighten illness-causing spirits.
“Old Broken Nose” Legend
Iroquois oral history tells the beginning of the “False Face” tradition. “The Creator” was blessed with healing powers and the love of living things. One day he encountered a stranger and challenged him in a competition to see who could move a mountain.
The stranger managed to make the mountain quake and move but a very small amount. The Creator then proceeded to move the mountain, telling the stranger not to look behind him.
The stranger turned his head quickly out of curiosity, and the mountain struck the stranger in the face and left his face disfigured.
The Creator, then empowered the stranger to protect his children from disease and sickness. But knowing the sight of the stranger was not suitable for his children’s eyes, he banished him to live in caves and great wooded forests.
He only left when called upon to cure or interact through dreams. The stranger then became known as a great healer, and named “Old Broken Nose.”
The Iroquois believe that this spirit protects them in times of need and healing those who are ill.
False Face Society
The False Face Society performs a ritual twice a year. The ceremony contains a telling of the “False Face” myth, an invocation to the spirits using tobacco.
During the central part of the ritual, the “False Face” members, wearing masks, go through houses in the community, driving away disease, and evil spirits.
The community then gathers at the longhouse where the “False Faces” enter and sit on the floor. The people bring tobacco, which is burned when the ceremony begins.
The ceremony itself is meant to renew and restrengthen the power of the gathered masks.
An Iroquois dancer in costume – 1892
People cured by the Iroquois medical society can become members. Also, anyone who dreams that they should be a member of the community may join.
In modern times, the masks have been a contentious subject among the Iroquois. The Iroquois leadership has released a statement against the sale of these sacred masks. They also called for the return of the masks since they are living representations of a spirit.
The Onondaga or “Hill Place” people are one of the original five constituent nations of the Iroquois Confederacy in northeast North America.
Their traditional homeland is in and around present-day Onondaga County, New York, south of Lake Ontario.
The Onondaga Nation was crucial in forming the Iroquois League, which led them to be revered. Also, being centrally located, they are considered the “Keepers of the Fire” in the figurative longhouse that shelters the Five Nations.
The League of the Iroquois historically met at the Iroquois Confederacy’s capital at Onondaga, as the traditional chiefs do today.
The Onondaga placed their villages on defensive high points away from rivers and the presence of defensive earthen embankments.
They developed the skills for pottery vessels and smoking pipes and lived in communal living.
False Face Society mask, Seneca people, late 19th – early 20th century, carved wood, pigment/paint, metal eye pates, horsehide with horsehair – Honolulu Museum of Art
The Iroquois, “People of the Longhouse,” are a historically significant northeast Native American confederacy in North America. They were known during the colonial years to the English as the Five Nations, comprising the Mohawk, Onondaga, Oneida, Cayuga, and Seneca.
After 1722, they accepted the Tuscarora people from the Southeast into their confederacy, as they were also Iroquoian-speaking, and became known as the Six Nations.
The Iroquois have absorbed many other individuals from various peoples into their tribes, and culturally, all are considered members of the clans and tribes into which families adopt them.
In 2010, more than 45,000 enrolled Six Nations people lived in Canada and about 80,000 in the United States.
Generally, the Iroquois believed in numerous deities, including the Great Spirit, the Thunderer, and the Three Sisters (the spirits of beans, maize, and squash).
“Keepers of the faith” are specialists who conduct religious ceremonies. Both men and women can be appointed as keepers of the faith by tribe elders.
False Face Society Masks
- Object: Iroquois “False Face” Mask
- Date: 19th – 20th century
- Material: Wood and Horsehair
- Find site: North American
- Collection: Ancient Artifact
- Museum: Ethnological Museum, Berlin
The People of the Longhouse
False Face Society
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“Man’s law changes with his understanding of man. Only the laws of the spirit always remain the same.”
Photo Credit:1) User:FA2010 / Public domain; Unknown author / Public domain; Hiart / CC0