[Two of the personalities mentioned in this article were Tuscarora medicine men. Wallace "Mad Bear" Anderson (1927-1985) was a friend and mentors to my Algonquin co-author Michael Bastine, and both of us were privileged to have known Ted Williams (1930-2005).]
Among the wonders in Mad Bear’s cabin was his personal False Face hanging on the wall. Its lips, nose, cheeks, and chin were gnarled. White author Doug Boyd had learned great respect for Iroquois belief, but he conceded in his book on the famous Tuscarora that it was hard to accept this mask as in any sense a living thing. Yet over the years of his acquaintance with Mad Bear, Boyd could swear that its “hair” - the yellow, wispy shocks of fiber hanging from it - dipped closer to the floor at every new visit. Even its grin seemed to broaden.
The understanding that these things were energized and even filled with human sentiments was so fundamental to Mad Bear that he cautioned his human guests to behave well around them. “Don’t treat them with any less respect than you’d give to a another person I introduced you to. Don’t laugh at them or mock them. Don’t even point at them. I don’t have the power to turn it around if you get something stirred up out of one of them.”
Mad Bear was controversial, but he was a culture-keeper. Even people feuding with him trusted him more than their own families to care for objects too precious to lose but too “hot” sometimes to keep. Many a time there were several False Faces in Mad Bear’s house that interacted with each other like magnets. Some nights they got so restive that they kept the great shaman awake with their psychokinetic play, tossing small objects around the room and buzzing continuously as if they were conversing.
One morning Mike Bastine came for a visit and found Mad Bear bleary-eyed. “Bear, you look awful. You been up all night?”
“Mike, you should have heard it,” said the healer. “The masks were really acting up last night. I had to get up and do a ceremony to calm them down. Took forever. Boy, I wonder what was going on in the world last night.” The house still smelled like tobacco and sage.
A few years before his death Mad Bear got sick and went off for traditional healing. He loaned two masks to Mike Bastine for safekeeping, a gesture of respect in both directions. “I told them where they were going,” he said to Mike. “They’ll know you. When I come back - if I come back - I’ll ask for them again, and we’ll go on a few more years.”
Late in his life Ted Williams admitted to me that he was a member of the False Face society. He had made his first mask thirty years before, just after his initiation. He didn’t know the ways as well as he does now. Though horsehair and natural fibers are customary for masks, he figured to give the one he’d made more power by using his own hair. He wasn’t accustomed then to the way they “think.”
Thus he blamed himself when, shortly after, his young daughter was killed in a freak accident as she carried the mask to a show-and-tell at her school. As if drawn to her by magnetism, a car had veered into a crosswalk and virtually pursued her. The stunned driver said the car had taken on a will of its own.
“Those things are just too powerful,” said Michael Bastine in retrospect. “You can’t take a chance on their energy going off in some direction you can’t anticipate.”
The founder of East Aurora’s alternative Mandala School, John Newton, taught Native American children at the Onondaga Reservation in the 1980s. He admired the society he came to know. He liked the Onondagas’ attitude to education. One of his ten-year-olds said something indiscreet. “I’m a member of the False Face society.”
“You are?” said John. “How do you go about that?”
“I had a dream when I was seven and I told my parents about it. They said it meant I was going to be a healer. They got me into the False Face society. Now I lead some of the ceremonies. We did one last night.”
“Oh, yeah. We went to see a guy who was sick. Fixed him up just right. We always have to have someone who leads the ceremonies.”
“How can you lead a ceremony? You’re ten years old.”
“I am,” said the boy. “But when I put on the mask… I’m a healer.”