Native American Technology and Art
Why there are No Images of Cornhusk Masks

From the Spring (Vol. 1) 1995 issue of the Akwesasne Notes.

The Grand Council of the Haudenosaunee, The Six Nations Iroquois Confederacy, issues the following policy statement regarding all medicine masks of the Haudenosaunee:

Medicine Societies

Within the Haudenosaunee there are various medicine societies that have the sacred duty to maintain the use and strength of special medicines, both for individual and community welfare. A medicine society is comprised of Haudenosaunee who have partaken of the medicine and are thereby bound to the protection and perpetuation of tile special medicines. Such medicines are essential to the spiritual and emotional well-being of the Haudenosaunee communities. The medicine societies are a united group of individuals who must uphold and preserve the rituals that guard and protect the people, and the future generations.

Among these medicine societies are those that utilize the wooden masks and corn husk masks, which represent the shared power of the original medicine beings. Although there are variations of their images, all the masks have power and an intended purpose that is solely for the members of the respective medicine societies. Interference with the sacred duties of the societies and/or their masks is a violation of the freedom of the Haudenosaunee and does great harm to the welfare of the Haudenosaunee communities.

Status of Masks

All wooden and corn husk masks of the Haudenosaunee are sacred, regardless of size or age. By their very nature, masks are empowered the moment they are made. The image of the mask is sacred and is only to be used for its intended purpose. Masks do not have to he put through any ceremony or have tobacco attached to them in order to become useful or powerful. Masks should not be made unless they are to he used by members of the medicine society, according to established tradition.

Sales of Masks

No masks can be made for commercial purposes. Individuals who make masks for sale or sell masks to non-Indians violate the intended use of the masks, and such individuals must cease these activities as they do great harm to the Haudenosaunee. The commercialization of medicine masks is an exploitation of Haudenosaunee culture.

Authority over Medicine Masks

Each Haudenosaunee reservation has a medicine mask society that has authority over the use of masks for individual and community needs. Each society is charged with the protection of their sacred masks and the assurance of their proper use. The Grand Council of Chiefs has authority over all medicine societies and shall appoint individual leaders or medicine societies as necessary. However, no individual can speak or make decisions for medicine societies or the displacement of medicine masks. No institution has the authority over medicine masks, as they are the sole responsibility of the medicine societies and the Grand Council of Chiefs.

Exhibition of Medicine Masks

The public exhibition of all medicine masks is forbidden. Medicine masks are not intended for everyone to see and such exhibition does not recognize the sacred duties and special functions of the masks.

The exhibition of masks by museums does not serve to enlighten the public regarding the culture of the Haudenosaunee as such an exhibition violates the intended purpose of the mask and contributes to the desecration of the sacred image. In addition, information regarding medicine societies is not meant for general distribution. The non-Indian public does not have the right to examine, interpret, or present the beliefs, functions, and duties of the secret medicine societies of the Haudenosaunee. The sovereign responsibility of the Haudenosaunee over their spiritual duties must be respected by the removal of all medicine masks from exhibition and from access to non-Indians.

Reproductions, castings, photographs, or illustrations of medicine masks should not he used in exhibitions, as the image of the medicine masks should not be used in these fashions. To subject tile image of the medicine masks to ridicule or misrepresentation is a violation of the sacred functions of the masks.

The Council of Chiefs find that there is no proper way to explain, interpret, or present the significance of the medicine masks and therefore, ask that no attempt be made by museums to do so other than to explain the wishes of the Haudenosaunee in this matter.

Return of Medicine Masks

All Haudenosaunee medicine masks currently possessed by non-Indians, including Museums, Art Galleries, Historical Societies, Universities, Commercial Enterprises, Foreign Governments, and Individuals should be returned to the Grand Council of Chiefs of the Haudenosaunee, who will ensure their proper use and protection for the future generations.

There is no legal, moral, or ethical way in which a medicine mask can be obtained or possessed by a non-Indian individual or institution, as in order for a medicine mask to be removed from the society it would require the sanction of the Grand Council of Chiefs. This sanction has never been given. We ask all people to cooperate in the restoration of masks and other sacred objects to the proper caretakers among the Haudenosaunee. It is only through these actions that the traditional culture will remain strong and peace will be restored to our communities.

Chief Leon Shenandoah, Tadadaho
Grand Council of the Haudenosaunee

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