Throughout time and around the world, people have been using masks. A mask is, of course, a covering of all or part of the face that represents another human being, a spirit, an animal, or anything else the maker or wearer perceives it to mean. Some masks cover all or part of the face and others cover the entire head.
Native American masks are as varied as Native American tribal peoples and their rituals, ceremonies, and beliefs. The creatures that they depict are highly personalized within the confines of the individual tribe and the materials used to make the masks are unique to both the tribe and its geographic surroundings.
As a rule, Native American masks are not taken lightly. Their use is reserved only for sacred ceremonies and rituals and only a select few are honored with permission to wear them. In some Native American cultures, masks are worn as part of a healing ceremony.
Oftentimes the ritual dances in which Native American masks are worn are part of a ceremony to mark important occasions within tribal culture, such as a wedding, death, or birth of a child. On days considered sacred, such as summer and winter solstices in some areas, the Native American masks are donned to depict the spirits of the sun, moon, and other celestial and sacred deities.
In highly agrarian societies, Native American masks are worn as part of the costume donned by the dancers or tribal leaders in appeasement to the gods to ensure a bountiful harvest. Hunting tribes wear masks that depict the animals hunted.
In times when warring tribes were preparing for battle, Native American masks were worn in pre-war ceremonies to call on the strength of the spirits to lead them to victory in battle and to protect against harm or capture.
Materials used to make Native American masks vary with the location of the tribal territory. Those tribal peoples in wooded areas such as the northeast and northwest areas of the country usually carved masks out of wood. These masks were then painted or adorned with decorative ornamentation indigenous to the area.
In desert areas such as the American southwest, leather is a more common material used as the basis for Native American masks. Like those masks of the woodland tribes, paint and indigenous adornments were applied to embellish the masks.