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False Face Curing Society
The Iroquois of the eastern Great Lakes area made a wide variety of masks. The most
famous are the corn husk masks of the Husk Face Society and the carved wooden masks of the
False Face Society . The grimacing False Faces, which are used by the Iroquois in the
curing rites of the False Face Society , are especially notable. The masks are wooden
portraits of several types of mythical beings or apparitions that appeared in dreams, who,
the Iroquois say, lived only a little while ago in the far rocky regions at the rim of the
earth or wandered about in the forests.
Most of these masks, which are "fed" with tobacco to keep their spirit
alive, are painted red or black. They have deep_set eyes which are set off by gleaming
metal eye_plates and large, bent noses. The arched brows are deeply wrinkled and sometimes
divided above the nose by a lengthwise crease. The mouth is the most variable feature, and
runs through a whole range of expressions depending on mood, function, and locality.
Sometimes it is pursed as if for whistling; sometimes it is puckered with conventionalized
tongue and spoon_like lips, which may be funnel_shaped to imitate blowing ashes in curing
rites. Or the mouth may reveal the teeth or have a protruding tongue. Other masks have
large, straight, distended lips which may be twisted up at one corner with an accompanying
bent nose, or both corners may turn down in a distorted arrangement producing a
frightening effect. A series of wrinkles usually heightens the distorted look and cheek
bones are sometimes suggested. A prominent chin, common to some masks, is used as a handle
for adjustment by the wearer .
The faces are framed by long hair usually cut from black or white horses' tails, which
fall on either side from a central part. Before the Europeans introduced horses, corn husk
braids, or tresses of buffalo mane served as hair.
The significance of the masks to the Iroquois lies not in their artistic value, but in
their power. The beings they represent instruct people to carve likenesses of themselves.
They say that supernatural power to cure disease will be conferred on the human beings who
make the masks when they feed the masks, invoke the beings' help while burning tobacco and
sing a curing song.
The False Face Society is just one of the many curing societies found among the
Iroquois. And though it is not necessarily the most important, it is the best understood
of all the societies because of intensive research. Members of the society put on the
false faces to visit the lodge of a sick man who has declared himself in need of a cure.
With their masks on, and shaking rattles made of turtle shells, the members who are to
effect the cure, creep towards the sick man's home speaking a nasal "language" .
They scrape their rattles against the door, and enter the house, continuing to shake the
rattles. Then ashes and tobacco are used in a ritual meant to drive away the cause of the
patient's illness. Anyone who is cured becomes a member of the society, or a man or a
woman may join if he or she has a dream signifying that it is necessary to become a member
Most curing ceremonies are traditionally held in private in order to achieve the best
effect but public ceremonies are held at the Midwinter festival for people who had been
cured before. This is considered essential in order to prevent disease from reappearing.
Ashes are sprinkled over the people to drive away the demons of disease.
The importance of the false face masks can be understood by describing how they are
made. To reinforce the life in the masks, the faces are carved from a living basswood tree
but maple, pine, or poplar may also be used. The mask is cut free from the tree only when
nearly finished. During the carving, prayers are said to the spiritual forces which are
supposed to be represented by the mask and tobacco is burned before the mask in order to
please its spirit. The particular form of the spirit is revealed to the carver through
prayers and the burning of tobacco. If the mask is begun in the morning, it is painted
red; if its is begun in the afternoon, it is painted black. This is in accordance with the
belief that the first False_Face made a daily journey following the path of the Sun; thus
his face would appear red in the morning as he came from the east and black in the
afternoon as he looked back from the west.
Red masks are thought to have more power. There is also a divided mask, painted half
red and half black, for a being whose body is torn in two. To the Indian, he stands at the
middle of the sky looking south, his red cheek to the east (which suggests life) and
recalls the divided body of a patient who may be paralyzed.
The False Face Curing Society is an integral part of the Iroquois belief system. The
society always tries to cure as many patients as it can so that they will become new
members, for this form of group participation is said to increase its effectiveness as
more people become involved in the curing ceremonies. Carvings of False Face masks are
made for sale to collectors and museums today, although these are not considered to have