Mask and pageant

“The prominence of masks in the rituals and supernatural beliefs of the Iroquois Indians implies that they embodied an idea of peculiar importance. False Face dancers performed dramatic pantomime at the New Year’s and Green Corn ceremonies; they drove out witches and disease in the spring and fall; and they cured illnesses at any time of the year. Cornhusk masks were worn by other ritual dancers . . . Some of the more secretive medicine societies employed special, rarely seen masks. Even the mythology dealt with beings who went by the name of False Faces and who possessed a curious dual character, compounded of strength and shyness.”
Anthony F.C. Wallace, The Death and Rebirth of the Seneca, Random House, 1969.


“These appearances are not transitional appearances that lead to the real properties of the things and vanish when they appear. They are not true and are not false appearances either. They do not function as signs relaying the gaze to the things themselves. They do not have that transparency; they thicken, materialize for themselves. The rhythm and musicality of their facades, shadows, reflections, and auras obscure our view into the position and composition of things which are uncovered, discovered, and grasped in action.

“It is not that things barely show themselves, behind illusory appearances fabricated by our subjectivity; it is that things are exorbitantly exhibitionist. The landscape resounds; facades, caricatures, halos, shadows dance across it. Under the sunlight extends the pageantry of things. The twilight does not put an end to their histrionics. In the heart of the night the pulse of the night summons still their ghosts.”

Alphonso Lingis, The Imperative, Indiana University Press, 1998.


“This is the moment of initiation: the masks come off, revealing to the novices that ‘we are not always like this.’ But in this first moment, instead of adults initiating children, the dead are initiating the living. The particular point of greatest interest is that the kachinas, even the ones from Kachina Village itself, wear masks. The dead have not so much become kachinas as they have been representing themselves as kachinas, and they invite the living to join them in their game of representation. This puts the visual focus of what is and is not a kachina squarely on the mask, in case we have any doubt on the point, and it may help explain why most of the kachinas of painted pottery and rock art are represented solely by their masks.”
Dennis Tedlock, “Kachinas and the Dance of Life and Death,” in Polly Schaafsma, ed., Kachinas in the Pueblo World, University of Utah Press, 2000.


We say: if there is truth, there must be Truth. Choose Truth. But others have said: when the doctor takes off his mask, he is no different from anyone else. We say: whatever makes us live is not of the body, because the body dies. Help comes from outside. Know the Truth. But others have said: help comes from inside out. The mask itself is full of medicine. We say: to hear is to receive, like a woman. To see is to grasp the truth. But these others – so many! – have felt synaesthesia to be one of the heart’s most enduring attributes. There in the silence of the just-before, we translate ourselves to ourselves. The country opens up. Every true fiction can heal, can make the world whole.


“[S]ongs are still being dreamed. Since the rigid poetic pattern of olden days has been relaxed, there is, perhaps, more humor and more variety in the songs of desert life, which the animal visitants teach. And to these animals that cause and cure sickness there have been added three white man’s importations: the horse, the cow, and the devil. They teach their proteges entire series of songs no less vivid than those of the hawk and the coyote.

“Even the dreaming and performance of operettas is not obsolete. One of the northern villages has an ancient Keeper of the Smoke who was very ill. In his delirium he dreamed a series of songs to which the youths and maidens of his village have been dancing for two years . . .

“The old man found himself in a city ‘far under the east’ where the streets were like rocky canyons. There he saw the clown who dances at Papago ceremonies, wandering lost. The clown said he had been spirited to this strange city because someone had taken his photograph and transported it thither. Of course, the clown had to follow, even against his will. But, with the old man there, the clown felt the strength to return.

“The clown went, singing, back to the west, and the old man followed. ‘There wonderful things were seen.’ Among them was an ancient rain house, made of brush and hung with all the trappings of Papago ceremony. There were the masks of the harvest singers; there were the cotton ‘clouds’; there, too, were the woman’s grinding slab, and the man’s bow and arrow.

“‘Look at these things,’ said the clown. ‘Our people are ceasing to use them. It may be that this is right and that they should take over the white man’s ways. But, before you decide, come here. Look once more at the old things. Be sure.”

Ruth Murray Underhill, Singing for Power: The Song Magic of the Papago Indians of Southern Arizona, University of California Press, 1938.

Cross-reference: Deeply superficial (on the poetics of Mark Doty)

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