The False Face Society is the best known of many medicinal societies among the Iroquois. The society is best known for its dramatic wooden masks, the “false faces.” The masks are used in healing rituals which invoke spirits and a dream world. Those cured by the society become members. Also, echoing the significance of dreams to the Iroquois, anyone who dreams that they should be a member of the society may join.
The masks are considered to be living and breathing. They are fed with cornmeal ‘Mush’ and they accept gifts of tobacco as payment for rituals. The design of the masks is somewhat variable, but most share certain features. The masks have long, black, reddish brown, brown, grey or white horse hair. Before the introduction of horses by the Europeans, corn husks and buffalo hair were used. The eyes are deep-set and accented by metal. The noses are bent and crooked. The other facial features are variable. The masks are painted red and black. Most often carry pouches of tobacco on their foreheads and/or nostrils. Basswood is usually used for the masks although other types of wood are sometimes used.
When making a mask, an Iroquois man walks through the woods until he is moved by a spirit to carve a mask from the tree. The spirit inspires the unique elements of the mask’s design and the resulting product represents the spirit itself. The masks are carved directly on the tree and only removed when completed. Masks are painted red if they were begun in the morning or black if they were begun in the afternoon. Red masks are thought to be more powerful. Masks with both colors represent spirits with “divided bodies.
A story about False Face can be found here: The Story of False Face
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