Iroquois False Face Society mask
He was a powerful shaman, a man of great spirit and fearsome medicine who The Creator imbued with the power to heal and the power to strike down.
And he was my grandfather.
The People called him The Doll Maker. And nobody dared wonder aloud why every doll he made had the same face. Except for me.
One night I said to him in his special hut in the furthest corner of the village from the palisade entrance, “Grandfather, why do all your medicine dolls have the same face when they are meant to represent different people and spirits?”
“That is not for you to know yet, Grandson. Soon enough, I shall reveal my secrets to one of you children, for someone must take my place when it is my time to join our fathers and their fathers’ fathers in the Land of the Dead,” he said, never moving a muscle as he stared into the small fire before him, save for his lips around his pipe.
“I see, Grandfather, it’s just that I never understood.”
“And perhaps you never will, Grandson. But, if the spirits of our ancestors place their hands upon you, you will be the one to whom I will share the secret of the dolls,” he said and closed his eyes as if in a trance.
“I know why he does it, give all the dolls the same faces,” my older brother Kakë:’ët neokë, White Deer, told me one night in our family’s portion of the longhouse. “It’s because he’s become so old and feeble he can no longer carve any face but that one. While I, on the other hand, have schooled myself in the carving art and have surpassed that old man. All I need is the knowledge of his incantations and medicine and I will succeed him as our clan’s shaman.”
White Deer pulled from beneath the bear robe on his pallet six small wooden doll heads, each carved to look like a member of our family. Their likenesses frightened this boy of eleven winters and I stepped away from them while not being able to tear my eyes from their piercing stares.
“Hahji’, my brother, while your craftsmanship is great, you should not show those to anyone. And you should learn to keep your plans to yourself. The Grandfather hears with more than his old ears and he will punish you for speaking against him in such an arrogant way,” I said and walked to the other side of the fire to where my mother was nursing our baby sister.
Over the next few months, I began doing more and more chores for Grandfather, learning more about the history of our people and even some of the healing arts beyond those dispensed by the False Face Society, the masked healers who held ceremonies throughout the village in the green-up and harvest times.
Several men, including my father, were members of the False Face Society. Father said they all learned the story of the False Faces from The Grandfather. How the Creator, when he had finished forming the world, was wandering around admiring his work, when he encountered another being who said HE had created the world.
“In a competition to see which of them had the most power, each was to move a mountain, though they were supposed to turn their backs to the mountain while the other used their power. The stranger went first and moved the mountain but a little, yet he moved it. The Creator then took his turn and reminded the Stranger to keep his back turned. But the Stranger’s curiosity was too great. He turned before the Creator was done and was struck in the face by the mountain, leaving him disfigured. Despite The Stranger’s now hideous face, the Creator recognized his great powers, and decided to let him stay in the world to use those powers to heal and prevent storms from harming The People. In his honor, the False Face Society members carve their masks in their own special representation of the one now called Ethiso:da’, The Grandfather” Father said.
“And it was your Grandfather who taught three generations of our men how to carve our masks. No one was a better teacher or a better carver than our Grandfather,” Father said.
“White Deer feels he is a better and will succeed Grandfather as our great shaman,” I said.
“Your brother will become a great man among The People. His strength and confidence will serve him well in war and politics. But your baby sister stands a greater chance of becoming Shaman than White Deer,” Father said, and laughed. “And we shall keep that between the two of us, son.”
He sent me off to see to Grandfather’s comfort and needs. When I entered his hut, I saw Grandfather placing a new doll over by his carving knives. It had the same face as all the others, but it’s clothing looked familiar and on its hand it wore a bandage.
“That doll reminds me of White Deer. It even has the bandage he wears since he cut himself,” I noted.
“Perhaps he should be more heedful to what he has in his hands rather than dreaming of grasping for those things he cannot reach,” Grandfather said.
“Grandfather, did you…?”
“White Deer cut himself, Grandson. I only had the vision that he would and carved a remembrance of the act. Now come, look more closely at this doll,” he said.
I sat next to him and he showed me the doll, whose face looked like every other doll’s face.
“I have decided to begin teaching you how to carve, Grandson. You shall be my apprentice, my student, my successor,” he said.
“Grandfather, I am just a boy,” I said.
“Yes, but your heart and spirit are pure and have the welfare of all The People foremost at all times. Even as young as you are, you do not judge a man, woman or child by how he looks, but what lies beneath.”
With that, he tugged the face, the same face as every other doll, off the White Deer doll. Beneath it he had carved an exact likeness of my brother. He pulled the face off another and it was my face, painted a strong medicine red, beneath it.
“You will learn the carving and the medicine easily enough, Grandson. But you, above all my generations of children, have the greatest gift necessary to succeed me,” Grandfather said.
As you can see, The Grandfather taught me well. Oh, you see only one face on my dolls? True, but my brother, Chief White Deer, will attest to its striking resemblance to our Grandfather.
For Day 3 of Story-a-Day May, I was tasked to write something using the following prompt from author Kylie Quillinan: “People called him The Doll Maker. Nobody ever wondered aloud why every doll had the same face.” I decided to set t in the culture of the Haudenosaunee or Iroquois Confederacy of my native New York State. Had a lot of fun taking a fantasy-like prompt and pulling it into my favorite genre., American Historical Fiction