Mask History: The Americas

In North America, masks were being used since the Neolithic Era. Though dating is difficult, it is believe that the first indingenous people made their way across the frozen Bering Strait approximately 13000 BCE. The Bering Strait is the current oceanic boundary between modern day Alaska of the United States, and Russia. During this time period, the Strait was frozen over, and it it believed that many made their way from the Asian continent into North America. The Inuit are seen as one of the oldest “named” people of this time, living in modern day Alaska and the Canadian Territories. These peoples are believed to be the first “indigenous” or Native North Americans. The Inuit would become one of oldest groups of Native people. Early masks from this time have been found to be stone in nature, similar to the ones in Europe. What is interesting to note is that the masks in North America date back further than Europe, where the oldest accepted physical mask in from 7000 BCE. The inuit live in a harsh environment. Formerly called “Eskimos”, these people had a significant part of their lives dedicated to ritual and storytelling. Due to simple age they could be seen as one of the “first” storytelling peoples in North America. The cold environment meant that masks had to be made of sold materials, such as bone or stone to survive the elements. The Inuit, those who currently inhabit areas in Alaska of the United States, The Yukon, North West territories and Navanut of Canada. These people were using stone masks as part of their own rituals, as stone artefacts have been found. These masks have been dated back to 2000 BCE.
Moving southward into modern day Canada, the first indications of “named” Native bands include the Mohawk people-from approximately 0 AD. The Iroquois among others are descended from this tribe. This tribe mainly was centered around modern day North Eastern North America. The masks for this region tend to be of a minimalist nature, usually carved from one piece of wood. In the North West, the Pacific North West people are found. With the tall redwood forests, and the proximity to the Pacific Ocean, these masks tended to be more ornate, . In the Pacific Northwest, natives were using masks in ritual. The masks would get become very detailed and complex through the centuries. The first masks were one piece and carved of wood or stone. As masks evolved, two piece masks were made, one inside of another, the outer splitting open to display the inner. Sometimes these masks would even have a third mask inside. Obviously, the bigger the mask, the heavier, so the storyteller would have to be strong. An example of the two split mask would be of a salmon, and the split mask would show the salmon bringer, a story told about someone who went under the water to catch the salmon. These masks were used for storytelling and rituals. As well, the stories were a telling history of a tribe, honouring their ancestors as they did. Where there were natives, there were masks of wood or stone, or a combination of both.
The Hohokum people would populate what is now the modern day Southwest. The time for this group seems to be date between 1200 BCE-400 AD and are considered among the “oldest” of the named tribes. Set in the Southwest, a more arid land, the masks of these people were carved from stone and were minimalist in nature. The Navajo also appear around this time in the South to Mid West.
Moving southward into Mexico and South America, the Olmec and Mayan people can be traced to before the Common Era. The mask usage of Mayans in ritual and celebration is filled with masks made of stones, including Jade, as well as metals of bronze and gold. Like their counterparts across the Atlantic, the Egyptians, these people too would build temples, study astronomy, and lay their dead with stone and metal masks. The Mayans would continue until approximately 1000-1100 AD, where they would disappear, leaving their masks and pyramids behind. The Aztecs would rise around 1200 AD. The Aztecs, known for their Gold and Jewels, made beautiful precious masks for their ritual, celebration and ceremonial purposes. It was during this period from The Olmecs to the Aztecs, that a Latin celebration finds it’s origins; The Day Of the Dead.