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Iroquois False Face mask
Controversy

Some members of the Iroquois Nation are very sensitive about the sale of False Face Masks or their display in museums.  The primary concern is over the sale or display of masks that have been used in religious ceremonies and are considered to be "live."  The masks we offer for sale have not been blessed and are not considered to be live masks.   The artists who make these masks do not consider their sale or distribution into non-Iroquois society to be an issue.  They often earn their livelihood or supplement their income by making the masks and see it as a way of promoting Iroquois culture.    

Every now and then, we receive e-mails from individuals who want us to stop offering the masks.  We explain our position and have offered them an opportunity to post a message on our website provided they give us permission in writing to reproduce the information so as to avoid any possibility of copyright violation.  To date, nobody has responded.

Below is the text of a letter written by the late Chief Jacob Thomas to the owner of a major gallery in Canada stating his position on the sale of Iroquois False Face masks:

I am responding to your letter of October 3, 1994 requesting clarification of masks being sold to galleries, collectors, and other institutions.

First of all in the past the people carved different forms of art to help support their livelihood.  Particularly today as there are no jobs this maybe the only source for the people to make a living is to sell their art.  Therefore many people do carve and sell their art.  I believe that this is an honest thing to do rather than living on welfare or having to steal to provide for one's family.

The masks that I carve are not "blessed" nor given any power for healing, and there is nothing wrong to sell these masks.  On the other hand, I do agree when the people say that sacred masks should not be sold.  Sacred masks are blessed and given power to heal and to cure.  This is not a religious practice but it is a tradition that has been passed on from generation to generation.

People are very critical but they overlook the practice to sell native medicine, to compete in native dances, and to sell their culture by smudging and by selling lacrosse sticks (it's medicine too).  Today lacrosse sticks are sold and played all over the world.

If masks are forbidden to be sold and it becomes too sacred then it will become a secret and no one will be able to carve a mask and know what it means and it will become lost among our people. 

This is the way I make my living I carve many forms of art and I make an honest living.  If there is anyone out there who needs more information they can contact personally.  I hope this clears confusion.

- Chief Jacob Thomas

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On July 10, 2012, we received a call from Lana Watt, the Tribal Historic Preservation Officer from the Seneca Nation of Indians, claiming that she has the right to re-patriate any masks from federal institutions or any entity that receives federal funding or has federally guaranteed bank loans (Small Business Administration?). They do not appear to be making any distinction beween blessed religious objects from the longhouse and commercially produced art objects made by Iroquois artists.