Every Iroquois nation keeps a store of Medicine Masks. Many of the ones held in white museums are returning to the nations. The Onondaga are tacitly thought to be the experts on the handling and repatriation of the masks.
The worst imaginable environment for these Medicine Masks is the one in which most post-18th century whites encountered them: a museum. To let one of these powerful objects with its own inconceivable form of life gain dust, crack, and dry in a display may be as senseless and cruel as to put a lion in a cage. Are these objects alive and holding consciousness in a direct sense? Have they acquired some of the spirit and intention of the nation of their makers and thus simply project the appearance of awareness? These are questions for another day, and ones anyway that will never be surely answered.
Ted Williams reminded us that many of the masks in these upstate museums were questionably acquired, which could not have sweetened their temperaments. Some of the desperate Native Americans who ended up selling these masks were often in no condition to make decisions with objects of national significance. And some of them were acquired by non-Native Americans in divorces and inheritances and sold from there.
The masks, though, at least the live ones, keep their power. Masks “caged” in museums get restless and agitated, cracking the glass in displays around them and causing other problems. They often act up, trading places with other masks, moving about overnight, making their distinctive, disconcerting whistle-call, or causing poltergeist displays. Many a museum curator, they say, has been driven to an early retirement by this side of the Masks. And they are known to play some part in their own returns.
In the early 20th century the New York State Library was housed on the fourth floor of the State Capitol building in Albany. It was the fifth largest library in the United States and one of the twenty biggest in the world. It dubbed as the State Archives, holding a priceless collection of books, manuscripts, and documents, including records going back to the days when New York was called “New Netherland.”It also held a trove of Native American artifacts, including some much-mistreated Iroquoian masks.
Surely most of them were “live” masks quite likely to date back a century or more and have been used many a time in ceremony. Some may even have been taken as the spoils of conquest. They had been mounted behind glass display cases and untouched for decades. They itched under the dust that gathered on them and were offended by the gawking visitors.
The Library was growing too big for its britches, and plans were made to move it by January 1911. But there were delays in the construction of its new home, the Education Building, and the relocation was put off a few months.
In the early hours of March 29, 1911, a fire started… somehow. By four in the morning the entire wing of the Library was a howling inferno. Crowds gathered in the streets around it, yipping and dancing like children to catch the flecks of once-precious manuscripts, soaring out of the monument like the snowflakes of Hell. They were lucky not to lose the entire building.
Genealogists and researchers have never forgotten this event, certainly the greatest disaster that has ever befallen New York State’s library system. It’s one reason that many a passionate query into the past hits a brick wall at 1911. Lost with these records was most of a vast collection of Native American objects and artifacts. The most sacred, though, including the displays of Medicine Masks, were entirely untouched by the catastrophe.
The most popular explanation for the museum fire was “faulty wiring.” The one after it was a lit cigar butt tossed into a wastebasket. But the Iroquois who heard of it never doubted that the real source was the shameful treatment of the Medicine Masks in the collection. You don’t do that to a Doorkeeper, to a Great Doctor. It was as if the masks had lashed out at everything around them and left themselves standing as a message, could the white world only read it. Not a hair on one of them was even singed. Can you imagine being the first to enter the steaming wreck and seeing a set of them staring at you! The Capitol Building today is one of Albany’s best haunted sites.
We hear through the grapevine that two Buffalo museums still have X several masks not on display. The same source also holds that they have an arrangement with the local Seneca concerning the fair treatment of these masks. Most likely members of the Medicine Mask society are invited to the museum for off-hours, behind-the-scenes ceremonies. Doubtless the museum folks see this arrangement as a gesture of respect to their Reservation friends. The service rendered could be more to themselves, and the Medicine People doubtless chuckle when they think of it. Both museums are haunted, by the way, and accustomed to frequent act-ups when new Native American displays come in or old ones are moved.
Ted Williams told me about an incident from the 1990s. Word got out that a handful of masks in the possession of one upstate museum were to be returned to the Oneida. As the Onondaga are the generally acknowledged keepers of the Iroquoian tradition, a representative of the Onondaga Longhouse went to the museum see if the rumor was true. He also asked to visit with the masks in question, and to work a ceremony for them.
He was brought to a room in which the six masks hung on a wall. He commenced the Tobacco-Burning Ceremony, and almost instantaneously the door at the back of the room burst open. No human was in sight to have caused it. Over a hundred masks not destined to be returned were being stored – “imprisoned,” Ted Williams calls it – in this room. They wanted to be part of the ceremony, too.
The curator leaped forward to close the door, and the Onondaga healer called to him to leave it as it was. “I’ll tell you why later.”