Appropriation (?) of the Month: False Face Masks

False Face Masks

By George Nicholas

An unusual sighting in Washington state, a house address sign in the form of an Iroquoian False Face mask (address has been removed). Among the Iroquois of the northeastern North America, masks were an important element of rituals. 


This was (and is) particularly so for the False Face Society, a medicine society responsible for helping to maintain individual and community health. The masks, often grotesque in appearance, represent beings seen in forests or dreams, and endowed the wearer with special powers important in healing rituals. Each mask was carved on a living tree before being removed.

These masks have been the subject of controversy in recent years, largely due to their manufacture and sale by Iroquois who don’t belong to the False Face Society. This has resulted in confusion by the public who may think they their purchase is culturally acceptable, and consternation by Iroquois Confederacy members for whom such inappropriate use is harmful. These concerns are reflected in this extract from the Haudenosaunee Confederacy’s policy on False Face Masks (1995):

"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 the 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.”

Photograph: G. Nicholas, used with permission. 

Additional Reading

Fenton, William. 1987. False Faces of the Iroquois. University of Oklahoma Press, Norman.

Parker, Arthur C. 1909. Secret Medicine Societies of the Seneca. American Anthropologist 11(2): 161-185.

Also see:

Aldred, Lisa. 2000 Plastic Shamans and Astroturf Sun Dances: New Age Commercialization of Native American Spirituality. American Indian Quarterly, 24 (3): 329-352.

Brown, Michael. 2004. Who Owns Native Culture? Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA.

Isaac, Gwyneira. 2011. ‘Whose Idea Was This? Museums, Replicas, and the Reproduction of Knowledge’. Current Anthropology 52(2): 211–33.

Meyer, Carter J., and Diana Royer (editors). 2001. Selling the Indian: Commercializing and Appropriating American Indian Cultures. University of Arizona Press, Tucson.

Parezo, Nancy.1983. Navajo Sandpainting: From Religious Act to Commercial Art. University of Arizona Press, Tucson.


The Appropriation (?) of the Month feature, written by IPinCH team members, highlights examples of uses of intellectual property that might be considered appropriations.