The Sun Mask

Life and Death: Honoring Ancestors Through Cultural Masks

Honoring ancestors has always been part of any culture or tribe. While there are various ceremonies and rituals performed to honor the dead, these rituals have one thing in common: masks. Different tribes create different masks to allude to various notions: living beings, God or ancestors. Each mask tells its own story through the vivid colors and decorations.

Kwakwaka’wakw Sun Mask

The Sun Mask
credit@ Wikipedia

The Kwakwaka’wakw are indigenous people native to the northern part of Vancouver Island. The group originally had around seventeen tribes and spoke the language Kwak´wala. The primary source of income for these tribes was fishing. Other than that, men would take up hunting, while women were engaged in gathering fruits and berries. Weaving and woodwork were important activities.

According to the Kwakwaka’wakw, their ancestors came down to earth in the form of animals, trees and rivers. These living beings would then discard their original form and attain human form. Hence, all living creatures were sacred to them. For them, life wasn’t just living a life of riches by having plenty to eat and drink. A rich life also includes what and how many resources you could give away to others.

Life had to be fulfilled spiritually too, by honoring their ancestors through rituals, dances and ceremonies. These ceremonies are called potlatch, and the customs include giving gifts, feasting, thanking and honoring ancestors and celebrating family ties. All these are carried out using elaborate masks. It was about establishing, maintaining and respecting all living creatures.

The Kwakwaka’wakw believe that the sun was a man who came down to earth from the heavens and thus became the ancestor of several of the Kwakwaka’wakw tribes. So for them, the sun was an important source of life. The sun resides in the ‘upper world’, meaning the sky, and walking from East to West was what caused the sunrise and the sunset. Most of the tribes’ homes have totem poles outside their homes with the sun mask as the crest. The sun mask is carved from a single piece of red cedar and pained all over with red, black, yellow, blue and white. The nostrils and eyes have two holes each. The hooked, beak-like nose and eye sockets are painted yellow. The wood rings will be visible beneath the paint.

Haida Mask

Haida Mask
credit@ Wikipedia

The Haida people are indigenous to the Haida Gwaii of British Columbia. For the Haida, the relationship between their land and themselves were of utmost importance. ‘Haida Gwaii’ means ‘island of the people,’ and the way of Haida life was centered on their land and its resources. The Haida are basically divided into two subgroups or clans- the Eagle and the Raven. Members marry into opposite groups. To display their wealth, totem poles would be erected outside their homes.

There are many similarities between the beliefs and customs of the Kwakwaka’wakw and the Haida. Like the former, the Haida lived mostly by natural resources. Their main sources of livelihood are hunting, fishing and woodcraft. Trading was also vital for their economy. And like the Kwakwaka’wakw, their land, living beings and their ancestry were honored through potlatches. For the Haida, many of the animals roaming their land represented God.

The potlaches included storytelling, enactment and dancing, with the aid of colorful masks. The masks depicted living beings, wild spirits or their ancestors. During the ritual, the person who wears the mask took on the characteristics of whichever being was represented by the mask worn. The rituals ensure that the people remember their ancestors while also initiating new members into the tribe.

The Haida masks are made of red cedar wood, copper, strips of bark and straw. Copper is a sign of wealth. The masks are created to stand out and be bold. Various shades of blue, red, black and white are used. The two basic shapes that are painted on the materials are the U-shape and the ovoid. The representation of various animals, creatures, objects or God are created by combining both these shapes. The masks are often symmetrical.

Chambri Tribe’s Façade Mask

Chambri Tribe’s Façade Mask
Credit: WVC Library @Pinterest

The Chambri Tribe belongs to the Chambri Lake region of Papua New Guinea. The three communities that make up this tribe are Indingai, Wombun, and Kilimbit, amounting to around 1000 natives.

The Chambri are a non- violent group. Their livelihood comes from fishing and trading. Since their native land is in the middle of the Sepik River, fish is a staple food item for them. The excess fish that is caught is traded with other villages for sago (starch extracted from tropical palm stems.) Earlier, the tribe also made their living by trading hand-made tools with their neighboring villages, but as western tools were introduced, this practice died out.

As the Europeanization of neighboring villages has drastically affected their livelihood and customs, the Chambri tribe fought to hold on to their way of life through bartering. Bartering markets have been set up and women often walk over to the other villages to barter their goods.

The Chambri tribe believed in the afterlife, spirits, both good and evil and the protective powers of their ancestors. Apart from using masks in ceremonies honoring their land and ancestors, the masks were also hung outside the doors, facades or awnings of ceremonial houses. These façade masks often had aggressive expressions- glaring eyes, open mouth with the tongue hanging outside and rows of pointed teeth. According to the tribe, the masks are made in likeness of the ancestors of the house. To protect those members of the family inside the house from evil spirits, these fearsome masks are hung outside.

Torres Strait Islanders’ Mawa Mask

Torres Strait Islanders’ Mawa Mask
Credit: Glenn Gully @ Flickr

The Torres Strait Islanders are native to Aboriginal Australia. These indigenous people have undergone several cultural, material and linguistic changes due to contact with Europeans, but certain traits of their tribe remain untouched to this day.

Torres Strait Islanders perform rituals to maintain ties to the spiritual world and honor the dead for their blessings. Doing so would ensure greater blessings for the present and future members of the tribe. Other than for these reasons, masks are also worn during initiation ceremonies, rituals and sorcery.

The masks are characterized by elongated faces, eyes made of shells, a pointed nose and an open mouth showing teeth. Eyebrows, beard and hair are created by attaching fiber through perforations to the mask. The mask will be worn by the ceremonial leader. He holds the mask between his teeth by a horizontal bar. Apart from the mask, the leader will also wear a costume made of coconut fiber.

Western Elema Mask

The Western Elema are native to Orokolo Bay in Papa New Guinea. Owing to the location, they are also referred to as ‘Orokolo.’ The territory is coastal, with palm trees, behind which the sago swamps where most of the natives’ food is located. The Elema people live by agriculture, fishing, sago making and hunting. The main crops that are cultivated are yams, bananas and taro. Coconuts are harvested. Hunting is mainly done with bows and arrows, and often, dogs are taken along to assist the hunt. Animals hunted include pigs, cassowaries, marsupials and birds.

For the Elema natives, there is no higher God or power. However, what they do believe in fervently are the spirits of the dead, good and evil, and the spirits of the natural environment. Ceremonies with elaborate masks are performed to remember the ancestors. One thing to be noted about the tribe’s ceremony is that the ancestors are honoured in the same ceremonies in which new members of the tribe are initiated. This denotes that death is acknowledged while simultaneously embracing new life. A respectful relationship between the living and the dead is established. In short, the cycle of life and death is celebrated in one moment.

The Orkolo tribe makes use of canes, ornate, fiber- made masks and cloth made out of bark. The leader wears all this to perform a dance during the ritual. Perhaps the two most important ceremonies for the Orkolo are the kovave and hevehe. The hevehe ceremony isn’t just one ritual: it is a series of linked ceremonies spanning twenty years. The mask used during this particular ceremony stands at least 9 feet tall.

Baga / Nalu’s Banda Mask

Credit: Photographs © Hamill Gallery

The Baga or Nalu people are a West African group indigenous to the southern Guinea Atlantic coastline. Due to their isolated location, they had remained immune to a lot of western influence. The Baga people depend on agriculture for their survival, mainly rice farming.

The Baga were rich in traditional customs, rituals and arts. But after a Marxist government took control of the area and its people in 1958, countless of their customs were destroyed due to the demystification carried out by the government. This lased till 1984. After the collapse of the government, the group opened itself up to Western influence and was also able to bring back some of their traditional arts and rituals. An example of this is the Banda mask.

The Banda mask represented a high spiritual power or being that would appear only in front of privileged elders of society. This being would protect the tribe against dangers such as animal attacks or even danger in the form of humans. The mask holds special prominence during male initiation ceremonies.

Today, during rituals, the mask is almost always worn by a young man who holds the mask above his head. The front side of the mask has a large raffia cape attached to the underside. This cape covers the front side of the person and extends to his knees. The dance involves the movements of various animals- flying birds, raging bulls and serpents. During the climax of the dance, the young man goes into a spin at dizzying speed and then plunges into the ground, returning his mask to his initial position.

The Banda mask represents various characters. The long headdress is the combination of the face of a man and the jaws of a crocodile. The sharp teeth of the crocodile are visible along the sides. The human face has Baga scarification marks along with a woman’s braided coiffure. The top part of the mask represents the horns of an antelope, the body of a serpent and a chameleon’s tail.

While these are just a few of the masks regarding the rituals of tribes, there are many more. Most tribes are almost wiped out due to colonial encroachment and western influence. Many of the rituals performed are part of an attempt by the tribes to protect and conserve their culture and traditions.

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