33 Photos Of Early 20th-Century Native American Masks Brought To Life In Color

Published April 1, 2020
Published April 1, 2020

From the Navajo to the Eskimo, these colorized turn-of-the-century photos of Native Americans wearing their sacred masks provide a revealing look at their unique cultures.

Native American Man In A Colorful Mask
Native American Full Outfit
Big Native American Mask
Native American Man Wearing Feathered Mask
33 Photos Of Early 20th-Century Native American Masks Brought To Life In Color
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From the Navajo to the Kwakiutl and beyond, many Native American tribes have historically placed great significance on masks. Their masks are used in many aspects of tribal life, including spiritual ceremonies, storytelling, traditional dances, and much more.

Take a look at some of the most arresting Native-made masks seen through our colorized gallery of photographs that were shot by ethnologist and photographer Edward Curtis during the first decades of the 20th century.

The Significance Of Native American Masks

Qagyuhl Mask

Edward S. Curtis Collection/Library of CongressMasks are sacred instruments in the rituals of many Native American tribes.

To those who are not part of Native American communities, these colorful handmade tribal masks look like works of art. But to Indigenous cultures, these masks are more than just pieces of carved wood.

For Native Americans, masks and headdresses are considered to be the physical embodiment of the spirits of their ancestors.

"Once they are created through the instruction of the almighty and are blessed, they become a living entity," said Vincent Randall, a Yavapai-Apache tribal member who works on repatriation of Native artifacts. "They still have that power. That's why it's very potent. We don't fool around with them."

The value of masks to Native Americans is akin to that of sacred texts for religious worshippers. That is why these masks are handled with the utmost respect. To do otherwise, it is believed, could inflict unwanted bad karma.

Native Bird Masks

Edward S. Curtis Collection/Library of CongressCultural masks can take the shape of figures from nature, mythical beings from lore, and other representations.

For many tribes, shamans are regarded as conduits between the tribe and the spirit world. It's the shamans who carve elaborate masks — or at least supervise their carving.

The use of these masks vary depending on each tribal culture, though there are some similarities between regions. For the Yup'ik and Inupiaq peoples of Alaksa, masks are an essential part of winter ceremonies where tribal members dress up in their headgear to reenact the adventures of hero-ancestors and spirits from their lore.

Different Tribes, Different Designs

Chuna McIntyre, a Yup'ik cultural consultant, explains the history behind a mask being restored at the Met Museum.

Native American masks are commonly used to facilitate the spiritual connection between the wearer of the mask and the spirit world. They're often worn in special ceremonies and dances.

They're traditionally made out of wood, leather, feathers, beads, straw, fur, leaves, and other natural materials. But as contact with European settlers grew, Native Americans also added metal carving tools and synthetic paint to the mix.

The natives of North America are a diverse group of communities with their own individual customs and cultures, and this diversity extends to the use and design of their tribal masks.

For the Kwakiutl, who live in what is now Canada's British Columbia, masks are meant to offer a temporary vessel for supernatural entities. They are also an expression of the internal transformation experienced by the mask-wearer.

Mask patterns and designs among Northwest Coast tribes bear some similarities, but these tribes do not share the same myths nor do they use the masks in the same way during ceremonies. Each mask acquires a different historical meaning based on the generations that pass them down.

Nunivak Tribe Member

Edward S. Curtis Collection/Library of CongressA photo of a Nunivak tribe member, taken by photographer Edward S. Curtis.

Among the Navajo, who live in the southwestern part of the U.S., masks are donned for many occasions, such as healing ceremonies and rain-making rituals.

Meanwhile, the Hopi tribe — also based in the southwest — make their masks out of feathers and animal skin and consider them to represent messengers to the gods, the spirits of ancestors, and nature.

The inspiration behind the remarkable designs of these Native American masks comes from many sources, like dreams and visions of the shamans, their own traditions, and even the surrounding environment.

Breaking Stereotypes

Beau Dick Transformation Mask

Fazakas GalleryOne of the transformation masks created by Native artist Beau Dick.

In 1907, Edward Sheriff Curtis published the first installment of The North American Indian, a 20-volume multimedia series featuring images of indigenous people from dozens of different tribes.

Curtis's early 20th-century work offered a glimpse into Native culture, as shown in the gallery above, and even provided an important historical record for present-day tribal members to identify cultural artifacts.

But his work also reinforced antiquated stereotypes about tribal communities, like how they're supposedly stoic people with little Western influence. Some of those stereotypes were enhanced through photographic manipulations.

More critically, his work ignored the violence suffered by Native Americans at the hands of the U.S. government at the time. In the early 20th century, Native American children were taken from their parents and forced into boarding schools, where they had to cut their hair and weren't allowed to speak in their native tongues.

"[Stereotypes evoked by Curtis' work] have been recreated, updated and reinforced by more recent generations, so that most Angelenos and Americans as a whole still don't see American Indians as modern people, only as relics of the past," wrote Navajo filmmaker Pamela J. Peters.

But the Native American communities that Curtis declared a "vanishing race" are still very much alive today.

Wendy Red Star is among the Native American artists whose work challenges the stereotypes of Native identity.

A shift in the public's understanding of Native American culture has allowed Native artists like the late Beau Dick, whose colorful tribal masks are still among the most lauded among modern Native artifacts, to command attention in the mainstream art scene.

"My style is sometimes referred to as 'Potlatch Style' as it comes from a tradition of ceremony which requires many masks to be made in a short period of time," Dick said. "It takes many years of practice and an understanding of balance in order to create a work that appears finished in a natural and instinctive manner, without seeming overthought."

Native American masks have seen a rise and decline in popularity among the mainstream public and the Native communities. But even after centuries, these spiritual emblems are still a powerful part of tribal culture.


Next, find out the tragic history behind the forgotten Bear River Massacre and read the real story of Squanto, the Native American behind the first Thanksgiving.

Natasha Ishak
Natasha Ishak is a staff writer at All That's Interesting.