The essential irony of most any mask is that it doesn’t actually conceal its wearer from the world, but instead expresses both their own inner self and the culture from which they come sometimes better than their bare face ever could.
While that may be less true today — in the age of pop-up Halloween shops pushing the same few masks based on whatever, say, Disney property is hot at the moment — it was certainly true of the Native Americans of the early 20th century.
From the Navajo to the Koskimo to the Kwakiutl and beyond, native tribes across the Americas placed great social and cultural importance on masks, using them in storytelling, dances, spiritual ceremonies and the like.
Whatever their purpose, these masks are also of course handcrafted works of art by turns gorgeous and terrifying — but always visually arresting.
Thankfully, photographer and ethnologist Edward Curtis was on hand to capture images of countless Native Americans wearing these traditional masks throughout the first few decades of the 20th century, just as U.S. government policies were continuing to push for the permanent disappearance of the cultures and tribes that these masks represented.
View some of Curtis’ photos of Native American masks along with minimally edited versions of his original captions above.
Fascinated by these Native American masks? Next, view Edward Curtis’ portraits of Native Americans from the early 20th century. Then, read up on the Native American genocide and its legacy of oppression today.