The False Face Society
is the best known of many medicinal societies among the Iroquois
. The society is best known for its dramatic wooden masks, the "false faces." The masks are used in healing rituals which invoke spirits and a dream world. Those cured by the society become members. Also, echoing the significance of dreams
to the Iroquois, anyone who dreams that they should be a member of the society may join.
In modern times, the masks have been a contentious subject among the Iroquois. Some Iroquois who are not members of the False Face Society have produced and sold the masks to Western tourists and collectors. The Iroquois leadership responded to the commercialization of this tradition and released a statement against the sale of these sacred masks. They also called for the return of the masks from collectors and museums. Iroquois traditionalists object to labeling the "False Faces" as masks since they are not objects but the living representation of spirits.
The masks are considered to be living and breathing. They are fed with cornmeal 'Mush' and they accept gifts of tobacco
as payment for rituals. The design of the masks is somewhat variable, but most share certain features. The masks have long, black, reddish brown, brown, grey or white horse hair. Before the introduction of horses by the Europeans, corn husks and buffalo
hair were used. The eyes are deep-set and accented by metal. The noses are bent and crooked. The other facial features are variable. The masks are painted red and black. Most often carry pouches of tobacco on their foreheads and/or nostrils. Basswood
is usually used for the masks although other types of wood are sometimes used.
When making a mask, an Iroquois man walks through the woods until he is moved by a spirit to carve a mask from the tree. The spirit inspires the unique elements of the mask's design and the resulting product represents the spirit itself. The masks are carved directly on the tree and only removed when completed. Masks are painted red if they were begun in the morning or black if they were begun in the afternoon. Red masks are thought to be more powerful. Masks with both colors represent spirits with "divided bodies."
Iroquois tradition records the legendary beginning of the False Face tradition. According to the accounts, The Creator, blessed with healing powers in response to His love of living things, encountered a stranger, now known as Ethiso:da' (Our Grandfather [Onondaga]), challenged him in a competition to see who could move a mountain. Ethiso:da' managed to make the mountain quake and move but a noticeable amount. The Creator declared that Ethiso:da' had power but not enough to move the mountain significantly. He proceeded to move the mountain, telling Ethiso:da' not to look behind him. Turning his head so fast out of curiosity, the mountain struck the stranger in the face and left his face disfigured. Söñgwai:ia'dihsa'ih (Our Creator [Onondaga]) employed Hado'ih to protect his children from disease and sickness. But knowing the sight of The Protector was not suitable for his children's eyes, The Creator banished him to the underground caves and the great wooded forests. (There, sightings are experienced every so often of a man who is very large with Iroquois Regalia, long hair and red or black face peering from behind trees.) Only to leave when called upon to cure or interact through dreams. Hado'ih then became a great healer, also known as "Old Broken Nose".
The False Face rituals honor 'Old Broken Nose' and the masks represent his smashed face. They speak a language only understandable by each other, it sounds much like a horses whinney but deeper. They carry staffs as canes for they are to be very old in age. They also wear rags, furs or very dirty or torn clothing. They crawl into houses on their knees using their turtle rattles as guides. They shake that rattle along the floors of an individuals house in every nook and cranny to frighten away evil spirits and sicknesses hiding in small places in the home. In turn, they are fed a cornmeal 'Mush' made sweet with Maple Syrups and Sugars, Potatoes, Salt Pork. As always before a ceremony and in completion of, Tobacco is burned with a message telling the story of the False Faces and why they are being called upon that day.
In various versions of the story, The Creator is whom another might call 'God', while "Old Broken Nose" The Stranger is alternatively called the Hado'ih, False Face, Gagohsa (Face), Ethiso:da' (our Grandfather), the Great Humpback, Crooked Face and in many versions carries a turtle rattle made from the shell of a snapping turtle with neck and head intact as the handle.
The False Face Society performs a ritual to promote health using the masks. The ceremony usually contains a telling of the False Face
myth, an invocation to the spirits using tobacco, the main False Face ritual, and a feast at the end. During the main part of the ritual, the False Face members go through every house in the entire town searching for disease and illness. The False Face members also use turtle shell rattles, a reference to Iroquois cosmology
which see our world resting on the back of a giant turtle. The arrival of the False Faces is heralded by another medicine society that uses corn husk masks. If a sick person is found, a healing ritual is performed using tobacco and singing. The tobacco is burned, and the ashes are blown over the sick person. The community then gathers at the long house
where the False Faces enter and move towards the central fire. Here individuals may request healing. The ritual continues with dancing and ends with a ceremonial ash blowing and a feast. The ritual is performed during the spring, fall, midwinter, and smaller versions of the ceremony are performed whenever a sick individual requires it..
The Iroquois Traditionalist Society has opposed the sale of False Face masks to private collectors and museums. The Society of the False Face is supposed to be secret, never knowing who is behind the mask is part of its medicine. The Society is also very sacred and not to be shared, in any form, with those who do not belong to either the society itself or the tribe for which in some cases are involved in the curing rites without belonging to the society. Many Iroquois governments push for the return of the 'artifacts' to the communities from which they came. The National Museum of the American Indian
has returned many items of significant importance and is still in the process of returning others. The Tadadaho
(Chief of all Iroquois Chiefs), issued a statement online many years ago about the policies towards the sale and representation in pictures of the sacred faces to the public. Traditionalists insist that schools should not imitate these face for projects. It is seen as a sign of disrespect to the Iroquois people and the False Face Spirits. Many Iroquois also campaign to regain possession of these 'artifacts' from private collectors and museums. Selling the masks only makes it harder for the Iroquois Government to regain the possession of these items.
For the most accurate and extensive information on this subject. A book by the name of "False Faces Of The Iroquois
" by William N. Fenton
, is recommended