Whether gorgeous or terrifying, these Native American masks reveal a group of cultures on the verge of disappearing forever.
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.