Iroquois false face mask

Iroquoi mask

Materials: wood, paint, copper, horse hair

Dimensions: 14 centimeters high

Place acquired: First Nations art gallery, Toronto, Canada

Place of manufacture: Canada

You should take an ethical decision about whether or not to view this mask. It’s not that it’s shocking or disturbing in any way, it’s just that many of the people who belong to the culture that it comes from really don’t want you, or any other outsider, to see it.

It’s a Iroquois ‘false face’ mask from eastern Canada, and I bought it in a First Nations art and handicraft gallery in Toronto not knowing that there was any controversy connected to the sale or display of such masks. But as I researched it online the issue kept cropping up and I couldn't ignore it.

The background is like this: In the traditional medicine of the Iroquois, members of secret ‘false face’ societies have the responsibility for healing sick people by cutting wood from a living tree, fashioning it into a mask, then ritualising it so that it becomes invested with the power of the relevant spirits. Finally the mask is danced in the presence of the sick individual in order to affect a cure. A key part of the effectiveness of this medicine in Iroquois culture is the very secrecy of the masks. The more they are disseminated outside of a small initiated circle, the more debased and ineffective they become.

But over the three hundred years or so since contact with European culture, countless numbers of these masks have been collected, traded, and displayed in museums and galleries all over the world. A simple search on the internet will now present you with hundreds of images of false face masks. Some of them will be ‘original’ masks that have been used and made sacred at some point, but most will be made recently by Iroquois craftspeople, without any ceremony, strictly for sale to collectors or to tourists. My own mask (a small size version) falls squarely into this category. 

Many Iroquois rely on this income source and defend the right to make and sell tourist masks. But for the authorities within the Iroquois community, all masks, whatever their status, should be secret. A pronouncement in 1995 by the the Six Nations Iroquois Confederacy stated clearly that:
No masks can be made for commercial purposes. Individuals who make masks for sale or sell masks to non-Indians violate the intended use of the masks, and such individuals must cease these activities as they do great harm to the Haudenosaunee [Iroquoi]. The commercialization of medicine masks is an exploitation of Haudenosaunee culture.

It goes on to demand the return of all masks held by museums and to call for a ban on any mask being displayed or traded.

It is easy to point out the impossibility of this position from a purely practical point of view, especially in a digital world like ours that is completely saturated with visual information from literally millions of sources. But the issue does raise two important points. The first concerns just the Iroquois in that the issue of the masks seems to focus a wider feeling of cultural and political hurt felt by a marginalised indigenous people. It feels like a desperate position taken against a dominant culture that cares little about Iroquois rights and beliefs, not only on this, but effectively on anything else.

The second point is a much wider and more complex one about about the infringement of the intellectual property of indigenous peoples all over the world. It is about the commodification of cultural artifacts, through theft, through imitation, or even with the co-operation of the people themselves out of economic necessity.

I had a choice whether to show my mask to public view. My reasons for doing so would not, I know, be accepted by the Iroquois Council of Chiefs. But I think the mask represents an important issue that is worth raising, and within my own value system it seems justified to do so. This collection is about the visual, so it needs to be there to see if you want to see it. Whether you choose to view the mask is up to you. But you really don’t need to.