Whether gorgeous or terrifying, these Native American masks reveal a group of cultures on the verge of disappearing forever.
Navajo man, half-length, seated, facing front, wearing a ceremonial mask with feathers and with fir or spruce branches forming a wreath around the shoulders, 1904.Edward Curtis/Library of Congress
Person wearing Mask of Tsunukwalahl, a mythical being, used during the Winter Dance, 1914.Edward Curtis/Library of Congress
Navajo man wearing mask of Ganaskidi, god of harvests, plenty, and of mists, 1905.Edward Curtis/Library of Congress
Koskimo person wearing full-body fur garment, oversized gloves and mask of Hami ("dangerous thing") during the numhlim ceremony, 1914.Edward Curtis/Library of Congress
Tonenili-Navajo, dressed in spruce branches, 1904-1905.Edward Curtis/Library of Congress
Kwakiutl person wearing a mask of the mythical creature Pgwis (man of the sea), 1914.Edward Curtis/Library of Congress
Navajo man wearing leather mask with basket cap, fur ruff, nude torso painted with white lines, 1904-1905.Edward Curtis/Library of Congress
Ceremonial mask worn by a dancer portraying the hunter in Bella Bella mythology who killed the giant man-eating octopus. The dance was performed during Tluwulahu, a four-day ceremony prior to the Winter Dance, 1914.Edward Curtis/Library of Congress
Navajo man wearing dark mask, fur ruff, paint on torso, 1904-1905.Edward Curtis/Library of Congress
A Navajo man, full-length, in ceremonial dress including mask and body paint, 1904.Edward Curtis/Library of Congress
Dancer wearing raven mask with coat of cormorant skins during the numhlin ceremony, 1914.Edward Curtis/Library of Congress
Dancer wearing oversize mask, three rings of feathers in front of clothing, holding a rattle, 1913.Edward Curtis/Library of Congress
Navajo man bedecked in hemlock boughs and mask of a clown associated with the mischievous rain god Tonenili, "Water Sprinkler," 1905.Edward Curtis/Library of Congress
Kwakiutl person wearing an oversize mask and hands representing a forest spirit, Nuhlimkilaka ("bringer of confusion"), 1914.Edward Curtis/Library of Congress
Man dressed in a full-body bear costume. The bear had the duty of guarding the dance house, 1914.Edward Curtis/Library of Congress
Navajo man wearing dark leather mask, fur ruff, cloth girdle, silver concho belt and necklaces, 1904-1905.Edward Curtis/Library of Congress
Dancer representing Paqusilahl ("man of the ground embodiment"), wearing a mask and shirt covered with hemlock boughs, representing paqus, a wild man of the woods, 1914.Edward Curtis/Library of Congress
Navajo man wearing mask of Haschebaad, a benevolent female deity, 1905.Edward Curtis/Library of Congress
During the winter ceremony, Kwakiutl dancers wearing masks and costumes crouch in foreground with others behind them. The chief on the far left holds a speaker's staff. Three totem poles in background, 1914.Edward Curtis/Library of Congress
Ceremonial dancer, full-length portrait, standing, wearing mask and a fur garments during the Winter Dance ceremony, 1914.Edward Curtis/Library of Congress
A ceremonial mask of Nunivak, 1929.Edward Curtis/Library of Congress
Person wearing ceremonial mask of the Nuhlimahla during the Winter Dance ceremony. These characters impersonated fools and were noted for their devotion to filth and disorder, 1914.Edward Curtis/Library of Congress
Woman wearing a fringed Chilkat blanket, a hamatsa neckring and mask representing deceased relative who had been a shaman, 1914.Edward Curtis/Library of Congress
Two Native American men in costumes wearing horns of buffaloes, 1927.Edward Curtis/Library of Congress
Sisiutl, one of the main dancers in the Winter Dance ceremonies, wearing a double-headed serpent mask and shirt made of hemlock boughs, 1914.Edward Curtis/Library of Congress
The essential irony of most any mask is that it doesn't actually conceal its wearer from the world, but instead expresses both their inner self and their culture better than their bare face ever could. While that may be less true today — as many modern masks are used for fun — it was certainly true of these Native American masks from the early 1900s.
From the Navajo to the Koskimo to the Kwakiutl and beyond, many Indigenous tribes across the Americas have historically placed great social and cultural importance on masks. Some are used in storytelling, while others are used in spiritual ceremonies. Yet others are used in dances.
Whatever their purpose, there's no doubt that these Native American masks are visually arresting. But for Indigenous people, these masks are so much more than just artistic creations. Among many tribes, these masks are sacred. In some cases, they may even be considered living entities.
But in the early 20th century, many of these cultural heirlooms were at risk of vanishing forever. At the time, the U.S. government was pushing hard for the disappearance of the cultures and tribes that these masks represented. From reservations to assimilation schools, white authorities were determined to force Native Americans into white society at any cost.
Around the same time, a photographer named Edward Curtis was determined to capture as many pictures of diverse Indigenous tribes as he could before their unique cultures were nearly wiped out forever. And in some of these photos, Native American masks made an appearance.
Take a look at some of Curtis' photos of these artifacts in the gallery above, along with minimally edited versions of his original photo captions.
After looking through these pictures of Native American masks, check out nine Native American women who have gone tragically overlooked in the history books. Then, read up on the Native American genocide.