False Face Masks are considered to be living and breathing “faces” that carry a spirit’s presence with them. The masks are typically used in healing ceremonies to bring relief from health afflictions. There is a False Face Society among the Iroquois tribes and those who are cured with the help of False Faces automatically become members. Believers in traditional Iroquois thought do not believe or call these False Faces “masks” as they believe the faces are inhabited by living representations of spirits. False faces are even “fed” with a cornmeal “mush” and they accept gifts of tobacco for healing illnesses.
Iroquois legend has it that the beginning of the False Face Mask tradition came about because the “Creator,” “God,” “Divine Supreme Being,” whichever name you elect to use, encountered a stranger once, known in the Onondaga language as “Grandfather.” The Creator challenged Grandfather in his ability to move a mountain. Grandfather made the mountain shake and rumble but was unable to move it. The Creator said Grandfather had some power but not enough power to move the mountain. The Creator then moved the mountain to demonstrate his ability to Grandfather. The Creator told Grandfather not to look behind him when the mountain moved, but Grandfather was curious and when he turned to look, the mountain struck Grandfather in the face and left his face broken and smashed.
The Creator then employed Grandfather to protect his children but he knew the sight of Grandfather’s broken face would scare the children, so Grandfather was exiled to the forests and underground caves. To this day, sightings are reported of a lone figure, clothed in regal Iroquois attire, peering from behind the trees of the forest. He is said to have long hair and either a red or black face. He only leaves the confines of the woods when called upon to heal or interpret dreams. He is now referred to as “Old Broken Nose.”
To make a False Face, an Iroquois man walks among the trees of the woods until he feels inspired to carve a particular spirit’s face from a particular tree. The spirit desiring the face carving stirs the soul of the Iroquois man and moves him with what to carve. He carves the representative face mask directly into and on the tree. The mask is only removed from the tree when it is finished. Basswood is the type of tree most often used. If the carving of the mask was begun in the morning, the Iroquois paints the face red. If it is begun in the afternoon, the color of choice for the Iroquois is black.
The masks are given long flowing hair from horses: black, brown, reddish brown, white, or gray. Before European settlers brought horses to Native American lands and introduced them to the Iroquois, the Iroquois used buffalo hair and corn husks to adorn the masks. The eyes are set deep in the face and emphasized with pieces of metal. The noses are always made bent and crooked to honor “Old Broken Nose.” The masks are constructed to carry tobacco pouches on their foreheads to receive payment for services rendered.
At False Face ceremonies, a special language is spoken that only members can understand. The participants dress in worn rags and lean on a staff to represent Grandfather’s “ancient being.” The False Face Society members roam the town, going in and out of every home, looking for illness or disease so they can cure it. They also carry turtle rattles, which goes back to the Iroquois belief that the world we live in is actually resting on a turtle’s back.
False Face Masks are considered sacred by the Iroquois. Through the years, some Iroquois have sold the masks to tourists. The leaders of the Iroquois people, however, issued a strong statement against this practice and called for all masks to be returned to their home origin. Many museums and private collections have returned the False Face Masks to the Iroquois out of respect for their culture. Some are also afraid to own them as they may have special properties which belong only to the Iroquois to use.