Friday, April 12, 2013

Dear Teachers: Native masks are not art

Dear Teachers and Homeschooling Parents,

Many art project books for use in classrooms include a section on making Native masks. One example is Laurie Carlson's More Than Moccasins: A Kid's Activity Guide to Traditional North American Indian Life. It has instructions for making "Hopi masks." A search of the Internet will show you a great many kid art projects in which they make what they call Native masks.

However well-intentioned mask making activities may be, we all need to understand that it is inappropriate to make them.

Masks made by Native peoples are not art. They have a purpose within a religious context. They are used in religious contexts. Creating them and viewing them as art miseducates everyone and leads to cases like the following.

As I write (April 12, 2013), masks "katsina friends" (see note at end) originating with the Hopi Tribe are being auctioned in Paris as works of art. The tribe asked that the auction be delayed or stopped completely but the request was denied by a judge there.

The person who "owns" the masks katsina friends collected them here, in the United States. Who he acquired them from is unknown, but we--teachers and librarians--can provide students with information that can interrupt the cycle of misinformation that frames sacred Native artifacts as art rather than the religious items that they are. Native peoples, our religions, our artifacts and our traditional stories should receive the same respect that Christianity or other world religions do.

Instead of making "Hopi masks," educate students about them and their significance within Native cultures. And, encourage students to put their knowledge to use. They could, for example, write to Ms. Carlson or her publisher!

If you're wondering about art projects you can do, take a look at Arlene Hirschfelder and Yvonne Wakim Dennis's A Kid's Guide to Native American History: More than 50 Activities. The activities in it are ones that aren't religious or spiritual in nature.

Please share this letter with fellow teachers and parents, and let me know if you have any questions.


Note (added at 2:21 PM on April 12, 2013): My use of the word "masks" to describe what is being auctioned in France is incorrect. "Masks" is the default word for them, but as described here, the correct English phrase for them is katsina friends. It means they are not items, but beings. Remarks by the auctioneer and New York collector during the auction are infuriating. See the news report: As protestors jeer, Hopi masks sell in Paris.

Update, Friday, April 12, 3:30 PM
Statement from Chairman Shingoitewa of the Hopi Tribe:
“We are deeply saddened and disheartened by this ruling in the French courts that allowed the auction to be held on Friday. It is sad to think that the French will allow the Hopi Tribe to suffer through the same cultural and religious thefts, denigrations and exploitations they experienced in the 1940s. Would there be outrage if Holocaust artifacts, Papal heirlooms or Quranic manuscripts were going up for sale on Friday to the highest bidder? I think so. Given the importance of these ceremonial objects to Hopi religion, you can understand why Hopis regard this – or any sale -- as sacrilege, and why we regard an auction not as homage but as a desecration to our religion. Our Tribal Council will now convene to determine the Hopi Tribe’s next steps in this shameful saga." 


Anonymous said...

I agree with everything here except one thing....Religious, spiritual, and other artifacts from other religions and cultures are traded, sold, and auctioned just as often. They are a part of many art programs, craft guides, and books. Every museum in the world has items taken from churches, mosques, synagogues, and other spiritual places. Maybe the issue is one of all spiritual people.

Brenda McDonald said...

Thank you for this information and the perspective, it is truly valuable to me in my work developing library programs for children.

Rachel said...

Thanks for bringing up a really interesting issue to wrestle with. I don't agree that native masks are not art. There is religious Catholic sacred and Jewish sacred art, just as there is Native sacred art. I wouldn't frame the discussion as art vs. not-art. It sounds like what you are objecting to is the practice making religious objects in a craft program. I think it comes down to whether or not the practitioners of the religion would object to children recreating the object in a school/library program. Is that disrespectful to the religion in some way? I would think most Christians would be offended if kids made a crucifix in an arts and crafts program., but it may not always be even that simple! I can imagine some Jews would be thrilled if kids were making their own menorahs in a classroom and others might take offense if the kids weren't Jewish. It seems like it all boils down to context!

Jane Harstad said...

Dear Rachel,
The fundamental difference between what you are still calling "masks", and what the Hopi people refer to as katsina friends, is purpose. The Hopi katsina friends are for a much different religious purpose, not for the purpose of what western or non-Hopi people would call art. I believe much of the religious art from the Christian and Jewish faith was originally purposed as "art"; but katsina friends are not.

I hope this clears up the issue of perspective for you.

Jane Harstad

Heather Munn said...

Yes, my thinking on this brought me to the same conclusion as Jane... It's indeed true that many other religious items are sold at auction, but in the case of, say, medieval Christian items--those were actually made as art. Art as an act of worship, yes, but still art--it's not considered a sacred item that it would be sacrilegious to use outside of its proper context.

Perhaps a better analogy would be, for a Catholic, to imagine that a consecrated Host is being sold at auction to someone who wants to collect such things, or reproduced in a classroom. To a traditional, believing Catholic that would be shocking. Since the katsina friends are considered beings, the parallel is actually very close--the consecrated Host is considered to contain the real presence of Christ. Such items are not treated as mere objects, however precious, within the context of their religion, and it's disrespectful for non-believers to do so. (Although there are always some who will.)