The northeastern Iroquois weave many types of basketry including masks. Some masks are twined from corn husks but the majority use a braid foundation coiled and stitched together. The masks made of corn husks, also called bushy-heads or husk faces, are sometimes associated with the Husk Face Society. These masks usually embody, or are inhabited by spirits associated with the corn harvest or with growing grains.
The masks are often woven by women, but are worn only by men during curing ceremonies. During ceremonies or dances, tobacco bags are often sacrificed or tobacco is burned for the husk faces. Corn husk masks frequently appear in conjunction with the wooden False Face masks. Husk face dancers do not carry a rattle or staff like the False Faces, but they do dance with a mush stirring paddle or digging stick, with which they can beat out a rhythm. Corn husk mask dancers can deliver messages about the harvest, or prepare the people for the ‘grandfathers’ the False Faces.
Different sized corn husk masks are made for different reasons. The full sized masks are worn by dancers during rites of the Midwinter Ceremony in January, and also for the Green Corn Ceremonies in the spring. The full sized masks can be made to represent male or female spirits, the female often having corn husk and tobacco bags or ‘medicine drops’ hanging from the nose, cheeks or lips. Some masks have braided noses, while others use a stuffed nose. Some masks have puffed cheeks or protruding and drooping features, denoting great age. Slightly smaller, medium sized masks are used for calling spirits and asking them for favors.
Miniature corn husk masks are used to pacify spirits tormenting a person’s dreams or visions. Dreams of this sort are generally associated with the Mask Image Spirits. The person who has the dream of the spirit borrows or makes a small corn husk mask in the form of the spirit and gives it a feast including sacrifices of tobacco. After the festivities this mask is put away and kept to deter any further imposition by the spirit.
Miniature masks are also used in the formal Dream Guessing Rite. This rite occurs during the Midwinter Ceremonies and is performed by the chief and his company for a person tormented by recurring dreams of evil or trouble. The content of the dream would have to be ‘guessed’ with the afflicted answering only yes or no to questions about the dream. The person who guesses the dream correctly then makes a small mask and gives it, along with wishes of good fortune, to the dreamer. As the mask is the ‘medicine’ it is kept at home to prevent recurrence of the dreams.
Unfortunately today, Cornhusk masks are often provided less religious veneration than their wooden relatives the False Faces, yet they are both still used in sacred curing rites and in the Husk Face Society dances. Presently some corn husk masks are made without ritual blessing for museums and tourists, but all these masks deserve respect as a religious object in their cultural context.
Cornhusk Bibliography and Books to Buy On-Line
Text and Graphics
© 1994 - Tara Prindle
unless otherwise cited.