Middle Mississippian Mask
1200-1400, American Indian Museum
A rare wood carving bears witness to a great, vanished Plains culture
This is one of the few extant prehistoric masks produced by the Southeast Woodlands, or Spiro, peoples of present-day Oklahoma, among the ancient Plains tribes who numbered 500,000 or so and ranged across grasslands from the Gulf of Mexico to central Canada. The red-cedar face, lacking a mouth hole for breathing and eye openings, likely wasn’t worn as a mask at all. It was undoubtedly a “highly ceremonial” object, says Tom Evans, a curator at the American Indian Museum. The piece may have been associated with a cult devoted to deer worship.