The Booger Dance.

February 6, 2009

While looking through photos for a researcher, today, I was surprised by the following image:

booger dance bear mask

while this appears to be a picture of a visiting muppet, in actuality it is a Cherokee man, wearing a mask for the ceremonial Booger Dance.

Booger Dance Mask made of gourd
Penn Museum object 46-6-2, image 150522

Performed for hundreds of years by the Eastern Cherokee in North Carolina, the dance employed humorous and caricatured masks in order to mock and defeat powerful forces.  And for a few hundred years, those forces have been symbolized by whites. Thus, many of the Booger Dance masks are unflattering or humorous representations of white people, poking fun at their strange facial features, excess body hair, or sexual preoccupations.  Our visitor above is wearing a Bear mask, but examples of the “White Man” form, such as the one at right, are in the Penn Museum artifact collections.

Excellent, thorough descriptions of the ceremony can be found elsewhere, which I do not have the space to reprint. But I strongly recommend their descriptions of a dance interrupted by rude, clumsy foreigners, who want to fight, or fondle women, but who are won over to dance with their Cherokee hosts.

The few major publications describing and analyzing the dance were made by Frank G. Speck, an anthropologist who worked at the Penn Museum from 1909 until his death in 1950.  In his position as Assistant Curator of Ethnology (the collections of living people) and as a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, Speck made close study of the Indians of North America.  As a young boy, he had been raised by a family friend, Mrs. Fidelia A. Fielding, one of the last native speakers of a New England Native American language.  Speck became proficient in Mohegan as a young man, but only found an outlet for his talent in languages when he met Franz Boas in 1902 and was introduced to the study of anthropological linguistics.

Frank Speck and Standing Deer, Cherokee, North Carolina, 1936
Frank Speck and Standing Deer, Cherokee, North Carolina, 1936

Throughout his career, Speck maintained contacts with many different Indian communities, and published careful studies of their languages and cultures. His book, written with Leonard Broom and Will West Long, Cherokee Dance and Drama, may be previewed at Google Books.  His collections in the Penn Museum Archives are comprised of correspondence, photographs, notes and transcriptions of traditional songs. One film of his is available on our Internet Archives site.

His photographs of Cherokees are formal study pictures of ceremonies and costume, but also include many evocative moments of daily life. These are the shots I value the most, and why I love working with all of our photographic collections.

Driver Family, Big Cove, North Carolina, 1936
Driver Family, Big Cove, North Carolina, 1936

…..Well, that, and also the surprise visitors.
in mask made of a hornet’s nest. 1936.”]Booger Dancer in mask made of a wasps' nest. 1936.
further reading:
by William Douglas Powers
“Booger Dance” by Eric Orr