Summary and Conclusions

By: Frank Gouldsmith Speck

Originally Published in 1950

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  1. The masking complex of the East, taken as a cultural phenomenon ranging from the Labrador area to Florida, fails to show sufficient uniformity of concept to be regarded as a basic common property of the groups where it manifests itself, or to have specific convincing historical ties with masking in the Northwest or Southwest of North America.
  2. Considering the whole area of the East from the standpoint of relations in the masking complex, the mask outgrowths appear as spots or areas in which dramatic customs or magico-religious symbolical purposes in the bedrock of an early culture period have conspired to produce them as performances of primary and secondary importance among the ethnological categories of the people.
  3. In eastern mask typology, some characteristics are almost universal – such as protruding tongue, painted surface, exposed teeth, hair on crown, metal eyeplates, big nose, whiskers and hair on face (sometimes with phallic symbolism as in Eskimo and Cherokee), marks or bags below the eyes suggesting “tears” (Could this be a tradition or apparition here of the so-called Buzzard Cult?), distorted physiognomy, use of skin, wood, and vegetal material, and semi-realistic representation of animals. Most of these homologies in outward forms of masks appear almost world-wide in distribution, in fact wherever mask images are found at all.
  4. In surveying the phenomena of masking in the East, it seems reasonable to focus attention upon two territorial types. One lies in the Great Lakes area, among the Iroquois and Delaware – groups in which the masking complex is highly religious. We find masking reaching its highest symbolism in this area as an expeller and preventive of disease. Here a common source of cultural motivation may be thought of as possibly accounting for corresponding manifestations among the Iroquois and Delaware. In the case of the Munsee-Mahican of the upper Hudson, a somewhat aberrant symbolism seems to have appeared in which twin masks represent orientated symbols of tribal merging. Here pairs of masks in the Long House – one white, symbolizing the East and the Wapanachki tribal group, the other red, symbolizing the West and the Unami-Munsee group – emphasized a specialized social function of the masking complex. Difficult to explain is the dramatic pantomimic development of masking in association with clowning among the Labrador Eskimo in the North and the Cherokee in the South. There are, however, some reasons for regarding the Cherokee case as a development along lines causally associated with those which can be traced in Iroquois and Delaware (spiritually prophylactic and therapeutic “medicine”). The Shawnee may be placed in the same category as regards function.
  5. The other instances listed in the tabulation of mask performances may now be regarded as marginal instances about which we know too little as yet to work them into the general scheme – such as Cree, Plains Ojibwa, Assiniboine, and the archaeological cases of shell masks in Tennessee and wooden masks in Florida.
  6. An ultimate European source of derivation is not likely in prosopic performance in the area under consideration, since early explorers’ and missionaries’ descriptions of native life in the Iroquois-Delaware area and in the Southeast refer definitely to types of choreography and ritual forms which are found surviving in practice to this day. To look for European sources or derivation here may be dangerously near following a fantasy of theory, for accounts of early colonial customs in the East do not stress anywhere the carrying over of mask folk festivals celebrated in the Old World.The non-religious functions of grotesque face masks (in which these are used dramatically or to frighten children into obedience to tribal mores) are sporadic and unrelated to the major trends of masking in the East.
  7. The masking complex in eastern North America seems to follow the maxim which applies to the overall history of masking in art as found in many parts of the world: that religious symbolism, if it existed originally, fades away when pantomimic (theatrical) drama enters the scene, as seems to be the case among the Cherokee and the Labrador Eskimo.
  8. In a tentative conclusive estimate of the masking data as gleaned from the all-too-meager sources available, it would seem that in the Middle Atlantic Slope Area (adopting Kroeber’s classification) the religious representation of spiritual forces by stationary face-images is so deeply rooted in diverse groups of the Delaware cultural complex that the latter may be posited as a center of development for masking phenomena of the stationary image type which characterize this segment of culture in the East. That the Iroquoian peoples adjacent to and culturally related to these Algonkian groups in antiquity shared the masking complex is also definitely predicated. This we may daringly regard as a cultural mutuality of the two groups. In the Iroquois case, however, a bifurcation of function seems to have resulted, in which the employment of prosopic masks instead of stationary icons became a distinguishing feature of religious development. These suggestions may possibly provide an answer to some of the perplexing thoughts which have lately concerned ethnologists delving into the interculturational problems of the Algonkian and Iroquoian peoples of the East.
Iroquoian Linguistic Stock Algonkian Linguistic Stock Peripheral Groups (Algonkian, Siouan, Eskimo Stocks)
I. Stationary Images Northern Division Southern Division Delawares Shawnee (Oklahoma) Coastal Algonkian (Carolina) Wabanaki, S. New England (Maine, Maritime Provinces) Eskimo and Naskapi (Labrador Coast and Interior) Northern Plains (Assinihoine, Cree, Plains Ojibwa) ( Manitoba, Saskatchewan)
Iroquois (Seneca, Cayuga, Onondaga) (New York State, Ontario) Cherokee, Tuscarora (North Carolina) Delaware (Oklahoma) Munsee(Ontario) Munsee-Mahican (Ontario)
None in Long House. None in Cherokee ancient or historic Tuscarora; two images in dome-shaped shrine, one half red half white representing good divinity, the other half red half black, the “devil.” (von Graffenried, circa 1711) 12 half black, half red masks carved on posts in Big House representing spirit forces. 2 carved on center post (Creator) facing east and west, 2 on each door post. Face images carved on sacred drumsticks, representing males and females. Twin masks carved on center post of Big House representing men and women. Face images carved on sacred drumsticks male and female. Twin masks, orientation symbols, hung on center post of Long House. white east, red west. Twin masks, white hung over east door red over west door of Long House representing Wapanachki and Munsee respectively. Orientation symbols. None. 7-8 faces carved on posts facing inward in circular open-air ceremonial enclosure (White’s drawings, circa 1590). None. None. None.
II. Prosopic Images (Face-sized) Masks False Face Society members, black and red wooden masks in curing rites with ashes, in Long House and homes carrying snapping turtle rattles and ragged clothes. Corn-husk Mask Society personifies agricultural spirit forces. In dramatic capacity of Booger Dance. No specified religious function, but as antidote to disease and misfortune after European contact; hence vague placative curing function. Masks represent Europeans, Negroes, Indian, grotesquely exaggerated. Carry no rattles. Animal masks (deer, bear, buffalo, wildcat) in hunting rites and as decoys. No color symbolism in masks. Solo dance in annual (Big House) ceremony wears half red, half black masks, represents animal (deer) control guardian. Also drives off evil spirits. Carries snapping turtle rattle, bear skin head and body covering (Brainerd, 1745, Harrington, 1921, Speck, 1941). (No False Face or Corn-husk Mask Society known except as formerly seen among Oklahoma Seneca.) Company of 12 maskers carrying turtle shell rattles, dressed in bear or deer skin costumes, visit houses to drive out disease by throwing ashes (Harrington, 1921, 15-61). Company of 12 maskers in Long House rites, 6 wore red masks (Munsee), 6 white (Wapanachki). Expellers of diseas carrying snapping turtle rattles. One or two impromptu false-fase and “shuck-face” dancers. Purpose to cure disease and drive off evil spirits. Not connected with major religious rituals. (Voegelin, MS.). None on record. As clowning feature in Peddler’s Dance. No religious significance. Solely in dramatic comedy with clown function. No religious significance known. In mythical cannibal or windigo (Woods Cree) representation with clowning. A warrior society for protection against enemies. Slight curative function (Assiniboine). Part of Sun Dance performance, (Rodnick, Skinner, Mandelbaum.)
III. Maskettes (Miniatures Masks.) Same types as large (wood and corn-husk) masks. Family and personal guardians of health. Possess medicinal virtues. None. Not noted in ethnological sources. Possibly stone face images in arhcaeology (Harrington, 1921). None recorded. Family and personal health protectors. None noted. None on record. None. None. None.
IV. Materials of Construction Wood (basswood, pine), Corn-husk, White cloth (recent) (Seneca). Wood (Buckeye), Skin (groundhog), Wasp nest, Corn-husk (only incidental), Cardboard (recent). Wood, Corn-husk. Wood. Wood (basswood), Corn-husk. Corn-husk. Deer scalp with antlers Skin (seal, fox, dog, caribou). Buffalo hide, Canvas (recent).

Cite This Article

Speck, Frank Gouldsmith. "Summary and Conclusions." Museum Bulletin XV, no. 1 (July, 1950): 53-55. Accessed May 26, 2024.

This digitized article is presented here as a historical reference and may not reflect the current views of the Penn Museum.

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