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Navajo person wearing a mask made out of leather with basket cap and fur ruff.
Masks were and still are made by Native Americans using a variety of materials, from leather to spruce.Edward Curtis/Library of Congress, Frédéric Duriez/Media Drum World
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Sisiutl, one of the main dancers in the Qagyuhl's winter dance ceremonies. The mask is a double-headed serpent.Edward Curtis/Library of Congress, Frédéric Duriez/Media Drum World
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Person wearing ceremonial mask of the Nuhlimahla, figures who impersonated fools and were known for their devotion to filth and disorder.Edward Curtis/Library of Congress, Frédéric Duriez/Media Drum World
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A Navajo man wearing a ceremonial mask with feathers and fir or spruce branches, forming a wreath around the shoulders.
The mask he wears is for a healing ceremony called yebichai.Edward Curtis/Library of Congress, Frédéric Duriez/Media Drum World
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A Kwakiutl person wearing an oversized mask and hands representing a forest spirit known as Nuhlimkilaka, which translates to "bringer of confusion."Edward S. Curtis Collection/Library of Congress, Frédéric Duriez/Media Drum World
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Individual masks are passed between generations within a family and acquire special meaning over time.
This Native woman wears a fringed Chilkat blanket, a hamatsa neckring, and a mask representing a deceased relative who was a shaman.Edward Curtis/Library of Congress, Frédéric Duriez/Media Drum World
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Dancer dressed as Paqusilahl or the "man of the ground embodiment." The character is a representation of
a wild man of the woods.Edward Curtis/Library of Congress, Frédéric Duriez/Media Drum World
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Three natives: Tonenili, Tobadzischini, and Nayenezgani, in ceremonial dress.
Traditional masks are still made by Native artists using modern tools and materials.Edward Curtis/Library of Congress, Frédéric Duriez/Media Drum World
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Navajo man in ceremonial dress representing the Yebichai god Zahabolzi.Edward Curtis/Library of Congress, Frédéric Duriez/Media Drum World
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Navajo man wearing a mask of Haschebaad, a benevolent female deity.
The Navajo commonly use their traditional masks for special ceremonies like healing and rain-making.Edward Curtis/Library of Congress, Frédéric Duriez/Media Drum World
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A Cup'it Eskimo wearing a headdress adorned with feathers and a wooden bird head.Edward Curtis/Library of Congress, Frédéric Duriez/Media Drum World
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Kwakiutl dancers dressed in masks and costumes during the winter ceremony. The tribal chief is on the far left holding a speaker's staff. Edward Curtis/Library of Congress, Frédéric Duriez/Media Drum World
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Navajo dressed in outfit and mask of Yebichai, the beggar, which is distinct by the use of spruce branches.Edward Curtis/Library of Congress, Frédéric Duriez/Media Drum World
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Navajo man decked in hemlock. He wears a mask of a clown associated with the mischievous rain god Tonenili, which loosely translates to "water sprinkler."Edward Curtis/Library of Congress, Frédéric Duriez/Media Drum World
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Traditional masks and body suits have been part of Native American culture for centuries.Edward Curtis/Library of Congress, Frédéric Duriez/Media Drum World
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A native child dressed in a traditional mask of the Cowichan tribe of Vancouver, which today is still the largest First Nation group on Vancouver Island. Edward Curtis/Library of Congress, Frédéric Duriez/Media Drum World
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Kachina dancers of the Hopi tribe in Arizona. The masks used in Hopi traditional ceremonies went through a dispute in recent years when the tribe tried to reclaim a handful of these sacred objects that were being auctioned off to private collectors. Edward Curtis/Library of Congress, Frédéric Duriez/Media Drum World
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Native American man wearing dark leather mask and fur ruff. His nude torso is painted with colorful splotches. Photo circa 1904.Edward Curtis/Library of Congress, Frédéric Duriez/Media Drum World
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A person wearing the mask of Tsunukwalahl, a mythical being, used during the winter dance of the Qagyuhl tribe.Edward Curtis/Library of Congress, Frédéric Duriez/Media Drum World
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Koskimo person wearing full-body fur garment, oversized gloves, and a mask of Hami, which means "dangerous thing" for a numhlim ceremony.
Edward S. Curtis often asked natives to recreate their ceremonies wearing traditional garb so he could capture them on camera.Edward Curtis/Library of Congress, Frédéric Duriez/Media Drum World
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In Kwakiutl mythology, the raven has the ability to transform itself into a man. This figure represents the raven in its human form.
Edward Curtis/Library of Congress, Frédéric Duriez/Media Drum World
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A Kwakiutl man wearing a mask depicting a loon on top of a man's head to facilitate the loon changing into the form of a man.Edward Curtis/Library of Congress, Frédéric Duriez/Media Drum World
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A ceremonial mask of the Nunivak people of Alaska. In ancient times masks were made to sell or trade for goods needed to survive. Edward Curtis/Library of Congress, Frédéric Duriez/Media Drum World
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Male Tesuque buffalo dancers who are accompanied by the Buffalo Girl, who is fully clothed in Native costume and has a pair of small horns on the head during the dance.Edward Curtis/Library of Congress, Frédéric Duriez/Media Drum World
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The mask of Ganaskidi, god of harvests, plenty, and of mists from the Navajo tribe. Edward Curtis/Library of Congress, Frédéric Duriez/Media Drum World
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Masks hold great significance for Native Americans. They are sacred objects used to connect with the spirit world, storytelling, and dance.Edward Curtis/Library of Congress, Frédéric Duriez/Media Drum World
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The Bella Bella mythology among the Qagyuhl tribe culture tells of a figure who killed the giant man-eating octopus. Edward Curtis/Library of Congress, Frédéric Duriez/Media Drum World
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Native Americans dressed up in masks and traditional garb as they travel to a potlatch by canoe.
The potlatch is a ceremonial feast common among a Northwest tribe.Edward Curtis/Library of Congress, Frédéric Duriez/Media Drum World
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A masked dancer from the Cowichan tribe of Canada.
While modern carvers use different materials as their mask base, cedar is still considered the best as it embodies the continuum between past and present, and the physical and spiritual realms at the heart of Cowichan culture.Edward Curtis/Library of Congress, Frédéric Duriez/Media Drum World
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Another mask of Nayenezgani, one of the Navajo's Warrior Twin gods. The siblings are two of the most important figures in Navajo mythology.Edward Curtis/Library of Congress, Frédéric Duriez/Media Drum World
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Navajo man dressed in the mask of Nayenezgani, the Navajo's god of war, one of the Warrior Twins in tribal lore.Edward Curtis/Library of Congress, Frédéric Duriez/Media Drum World
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Ceremonial dancers in a circle during the winter dance ceremony of the Qagyuhl tribe. They wear masks and garments made from fur, feathers, and other materials.Edward Curtis/Library of Congress, Frédéric Duriez/Media Drum World
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A Navajo man depicting Tó bájísh chini or the "one born for water," one of the hero twins central to Navajo mythology credited with ridding the world of monsters.Edward Curtis/Library of Congress, Frédéric Duriez/Media Drum World
33 Photos Of Early 20th-Century Native American Masks Brought To Life In Color
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
John Kuroski is the editorial director of All That's Interesting. He graduated from New York University with a degree in history, earning a place in the Phi Alpha Theta honor society for history students. An editor at All That's Interesting since 2015, his areas of interest include modern history and true crime.