Indian masks have always been an important part of Indian culture, especially those of the Northwest Coast. This ancient tradition has been carried down through the years and Indian masks are still made today.
Although it varies from tribe to tribe, there are certain standards and styles about Indian masks that ring true for all Northwest Coast tribes. A male of high status usually made the masks, but in addition to making masks, he was also expected to hunt and fish. The artist who carved the mask usually did so in isolation.
Most Northwest Coast Indian masks are carved of red cedar wood. Carving the mask takes a lot of skill. The artist must consider potential obstacles such as the wood shrinking or warping before the mask was completed. Once the Indians were able to acquire European cutting tools, the artists were able to produce masks at a faster rate and create masks that were more complex in design.
Decorating the Indian masks was a very important part of mask making. Eyes and eyebrows were usually painted black, the hair was made of straw and often feathers were used to decorate the mask. Masks were often made to resemble certain animals and represented certain characteristics. A mask made to look like a raven is considered a hero, but also a prankster, having magical powers. The bear mask is usually smiling and the masks are given as gifts as a show of friendship to another person. The most powerful men of the tribe, the chiefs and nobles, wore the most powerful masks of all, the thunderbird and eagle. Some masks were made specifically for secret rituals in Indian culture such as the shaman society, the war society, or the society that initiated young people into the tribe.
Today, Indian masks are still used in tribal ceremonies, but are also viewed as pieces of art and sold as wall decorations in many galleries.
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