In the ceremonies the native tribes held, there was use of masks to show the purposes and character that the people in them were assuming. While we are familiar with the head bands and feathers used in dances we saw in ‘cowboy’ movies, the intricate masks are seldom seen outside of tribal life, and museums.
Throughout North America masks were worn in ceremonies, usually religious or quasi-religious, but sometimes purely social in character. Sometimes the priests alone were masked, sometimes only those who took part, and again the entire company. In all cases the mask served to intensify the idea of the actual presence of the mythical animal or supernatural person. The simplest form of mask was one prepared from the head of an animal, as the buffalo, deer, or elk. These realistic masks did not stand for the actual buffalo, deer, or elk, but for the generic type, and the man within it was for the time endowed with or possessed of its essence or distinctive quality where the belief obtained that the mask enabled the wearer to identify himself for the time being with the supernatural being represented.
The masks of animals are common, and I have seen several with moving parts used to make them more lifelike. While they wore the masks, members of the tribes assumed a character of the animal they had chosen, and their movements often were uncannily similar to the animal’s own.
Often the animals were being hunted for food or skins, and by getting inside them the hunter shared something of the spirit they were seeking. A token offering often took place as well, before or after the hunt.
Masks on display at the Smithsonian American Native museu, like that above, have been made for and used in tribal life.