Northwest Native American Ceremonial Masks

Masks made by the Native Americans of the American and Canadian Northwest were made for various reasons such as religious ceremonies, art, and personal wealth. Many masks were used during potlatches, pre-hunting rituals and even secret society ceremonies within tribes. During these ceremonies the masks may represent the mythology of the tribe, or the spiritual or personal experiences of the wearer. Some tribes believed that when the mask is adorned the wearer becomes that animal or spirit which allowed the wearer to share in the spirit's power whether it be wisdom, strength, fortitude or good fortune.

While the tribes had their own uses for the masks many of the same animals were used on the masks as the same animals were encountered between the tribes. Animals like the killer whale, bear, deer, ram, hawk, and moose farther north. Many of the tribes, if not all, believe that selling the masks or replica of masks used in religious or sacred ceremonies is profane and should never be participated in. Even false masks, one made solely for sale, are sometimes frowned upon by members of the tribe but are not widespread. Several types of masks were used; one is a simple mask that is worn over the face attached with a bit of string behind the wearer's head. Other masks would be full head pieces worn over the entire head and others still are two masks in one. This is where the outer mask opens on a hinge to reveal another animal or spirit underneath.

Masks were of course carved using blades and small saws; but the tribes also employed the use of fire in the mask making process. Depending upon the size of the mask fire was sometimes used to hollow out a mask quicker by controlling the burn. Excess charcoal was carved out and then the details added. Painting really depends upon the tribe but colors typically depicted the animals in their natural colors, or at least in part. The Northwestern US and Canada Native American tribe's masks differ from other Native Americans in that they were all made from wood. Other tribes like the Cherokee used leather, but their tradition has been in decline since the forced movement to Oklahoma. Masks may be purchased from a variety of retail outlets, but the best are found from art galleries and Native American art shows.

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