Mask wearing has been a tradition since the time immemorial. And the Northwest coast Indians have been attributed for making the largest number of masks. Native American masks had many purposes: entertainment, spiritual and even medicinal. But nonetheless these colorful, artistic masks of the Native American tribes are one of the most fantastic artifacts.
How a mask was made?
The mask maker in a Native American society was generally a male of high status. Crafting a mask needed tremendous amount of concentration, and there were times when an artisan would go into seclusion to fully devote his mind and soul into making a mask. It was made generally from red cedar wood.
Artisans traditionally made tools for cutting, shaping and gouging. However, in the late 18th century Europeans brought in superior cutting tools, which enabled Native Americans to make masks in a much easier way. The paint used to decorate the masks was made from a mixture of charcoal or graphite, lignite, ochre and copper minerals. Feathers, hair, gold, straw, skin, or other materials were added to enhance the effects.
The different forms of masks
Native American Indians had three different kinds of masks. Single face, mechanical and the transformation masks. Single face mask is just a single piece of wood. Mechanical masks were made up of strings and hinges. The transformation mask was the most complex, had upto three layers, which consequently made it heavy. Only a strong member wore this mask.
The Native Americans believed that anyone donning a specific animal mask was endowed with the power of that creature to some extent.
Function of the masks
Masks were not made just for decoration but had varied purposes. Some were labeled as portrait masks which resembled a specific person of the tribe. A labret (decorative plug) in the lower lip signified higher status. Masks were also made for secret society rituals and ceremonies. Well, secret societies here could have been a war society, a conjuring society or a society to bring in young people in the tribe.
Masks were also made for potlach ceremonies. Potlach ceremony is an event in which a chief of one tribe gives a gift to chief of another tribe.
Native American culture is now almost extinct but contemporary artists of the northwest coast origin have kept alive the tradition of crafting masks. They combine traditional artistry with modern touch. Native American Masks today adorn the walls of many art galleries.