[Among the wonders in Wallace “Mad Bear” Anderson’s cabin was the False Face on the wall. Its nose, cheeks, chin and lips were gnarled; yet to the Iroquois who believed it was in some sense a living thing. However much he’d learned to respect Iroquois belief, White writer Doug Boyd found this hard to accept. Yet over the years of his acquaintance with the Tuscarora shaman Mad Bear, he could swear that the yellow, wispy shocks of fiber hanging from the mask dipped closer to the floor than last time. Even its grin seemed to progress.]
The Iroquois have their own child-scaring bogie, masked cannibal-clown “Longnose.” He’s not to be confused with the False Faces, a healer’s cult of which there are two sorts of origin-legends. One stems from the creation-myth, in which a rival to their Good-Minded-god rubber-necked too quickly, bashed his face on a mountain, and was deputized the patron of healing. Others involve mortal hunters, taught through encounters with this first False Face or his misshapen minions.
Rather than portraits of random goonies, the Iroquois Faces are mythological beings, gods of Disease or Wind. There are two classes of them: ones that imitate the crook-faced god, usually red or black, always long-haired, with the broken nose and jaw of the mountain-collision; and Common Faces, of all miscreated sorts. The latter-wearers seem a ramshackle, straggling lot for all their power, chanting, stalking, and rooting about the sickbed, begging offerings of corn mush and tobacco. They choose their moment, shake rattles, cure with a puff of soot, and depart. As recently as 1940 Iroquois False-face healers were seen handling hot ashes and coals, even rubbing them on human bodies safely.
Old masks, veterans of many rites, are passed through centuries. Lesser masks, seasoned with generations of ceremonies and tobacco, can ascend into the ranks of Great Doctor masks. To use any mask irreverently might curse the bearer, or whoever he looked at while wearing it.
A new healer is called to join the Society of Faces; a dream or a seer speaks, and the hearing is lifelong. When he inherits a mask, it’s given away with a ritual, telling it of its journey. Otherwise he carves his own. He enters the woods and waits for a living tree to pick him. If it’s morning as his tree calls, the mask will be red; if evening, black. He does the features, then strokes notches above and below, chiseling out the face in a block and working it at home. The mask never breaks and the tree never dies, perhaps because he’s offered tobacco. It can’t be left half-finished, though; it’s a more-or-less living thing, with sentiments and power.
In the 1980s an old Seneca from the Allegany Reservation broke this taboo, leaving a face on a live tree (probably in the area of Ga’hai Hill near Allegany State Park). Friends tried to talk to him, but for whatever reason, he refused to work on it any further. Then he had a stroke. His features distorted until he resembled the face on the tree; there are said to be pictures (before and after), attesting to the marvel. Finally he relented, and removed and ritually destroyed the mask, probably by burning it. His appearance returned to normal before long, but his walking-stride never recovered, as if to serve a warning.