1. Dancers with hamatsa masks, photo by Edward S. Curtis, 1914
"These two masked performers in the Winter Dance represent huge, mythical birds. Kotsuis (the Nakoaktok equivalent of the Qagyuhl Kaloqutsuis) and Hohhuq are servitors in the house of the man-eating monster Pahpaqalanohsiwi. The mandibles of these tremendous wooden masks are controlled by strings."
I found myself, since my trip to Montreal, completely drawn to transformation masks although it is more a tradition from the west coast. I read recently a little exhibition catalogue, a gift from my husband. In this little book there is a small article by Claude Levi-Strauss: Amérique du Nord et Amérique du Sud in which he explains some of the symbolic of the masks in North and South America.
He writes that in all of the regions of the New World you can find mask making. But there is this notable difference between North and South that in the South the tribes preferred the complete mask-costume whereas in the North they used what he call the “true mask”. True mask as only the face is represented.
I will pass the part about South America, but if you can read French, here is a copy of the article.
In Northern America, Levi-Strauss distinguished three area were you can find mask making: East with the Iroquois, North-West of the pacific coast (British Colombia and Alaska) and South-East (New Mexico and Arizona) with the Pueblo, Navaho and Apache.
In the North of the Pacific coast you can find the most complicated masks, they often portray several characters in one, they can move, transform from one face to another. This is possible thanks to complicated mechanisms: ropes, straps and hinges.
2. Namgis (Native American). Thunderbird Transformation Mask, 19th century. The Thunderbird is believed to be an Ancestral Sky Being of the Namgis clan of the Kwakwaka’wakw, who say that when this bird ruffles its feathers, it causes thunder and when it blinks its eyes, lightning flashes.
3. Three stages of a Transformation mask: Bullhead fish, Raven and Human face, Kwakwaka’wakw, collected in 1901 - American Museum of Natural History, New-York
Masks were worn in profane and religious feasts and ceremonies. The fact that I love and that Lei-Strauss explain is that in the profane feasts the noblemen and women would wear masks to remind the other that they were descendant of the gods. (I can imagine how fascinating it must have been, walking almost among gods…)
4. Bella Coola Indians wearing ceremonial blankets and "Crooked Beak of Heaven" masks ca. 1886] (Creation) Name of creator Matthews, James Skitt, Major.
5. Woman with mask, wearing a chilkat blanket - source: wikipedia
6. Showing of masks at Kwakwaka’wakw potlatch - source: wikipedia
7. Kwakwaka’wakw Dance Costume - photo by Edward S. Curtis
Masks are truly living artefacts and so I wanted to share here a little film in which you can see a reconstitution of a ceremony.
This film made my fascination for masks even more significant. And there is these words by Salish educator Shane Pointe that stuck in my mind: “Now today you can go downtown and you can go to any of the galleries and you can walk in there and you can look at their walls and you can say “I want that mask, I want that mask” and you put dollars for that mask. But masks to my people, to my mom’s people, to my dad’s people… those weren’t just things to be hanging on the walls and things that you could purchase. They earned a right to have those”