The Cherokee Booger Mask

The people we call the Cherokee Indians have lived in the southeastern mountains for hundreds of years.  They called themselves “Ani-yun-wiya” which is translated as “real people”.  The name Cherokee is a Euro-American corruption of the Creek Indian name for these people – “Teiloki” – which means “people of the different language”.

The Cherokee people probably lived a pretty good life with plenty of game and fish and wild plants as well as the corn, beans and squash they grew.  That was until AD 1540 when the Spanish traversed their beloved mountains.  Then came the French and English with illnesses and prejudices for which the natives had no comprehension.  The Cherokees needed some help to ward off the perceived European wickedness and they got that aid with the development of the Booger Mask.

These Booger Masks were made as grotesque representations of enemies or the Indians themselves and were worn during the Booger Dance to elicit humor about fearsome aspects of life.  It is quite likely that the natives made and used the masks before the arrival of the Old World invaders but there is no factual evidence of this.  The Booger Dance was normally preformed during the winter months so its association with ghosts and deities would not affect their crops.  It was a tool the people used to deal with the stress of misfortune by reducing the enemy or game animals into something mentally manageable via making a fool of the Booger Mask wearing dancer.  In short, the Booger Dance was used to evoke humor about serious aspects of day to day life.  After the European invasion into the southern mountains, the Booger Dance was regularly preformed to ward off the foreign diseases and influences.  It was, in effect, their antibiotics and security system in a familiar world gone completely haywire.

The Booger Masks were carved from buckeye, pine and basswood or fashioned from dipper gourds or hollowed-out hornet nests.  Many were painted white with bushy moustaches and eyebrows of opossum hair to simulate the white man.  Some were painted black with black bear fur on the hairline to simulate the black man.  Others were painted polychrome colors and had horns or antlers attached in an attempt to aid in the hunt.  Most, according the early records, were made of hornet nests or dipper gourds with the gourd handle cut off and reattached on the mask as a nose or phallic symbol.  The dancer would don the mask and old ragged clothes and generally act silly for the amusement of the crowd and to invoke the wrath of the gods against their enemies or for assistance in hunting for dinner.

The mask pictured with this article is made of buckeye wood and is painted red, black, white, green and brown and has been re-colored several times since it was initially shaped.  It has a snake carved across the forehead and down both sides of the face which is construed as a sign of the wearer’s bravery.  It has a long forked tongue exiting the toothy mouth and two horns are attached to the top of the mask.  It is nine and three-quarters tall by six and five-eighths inches wide and was made in the circa 1750 to 1850 time period.  It was displayed for many years in the now closed Grants Indian Museum in Old Fort, NC.    The previous owner, the late Woodrow Wilson Grant, himself one-half Cherokee, wore this mask over sixty years ago in the Booger Dance and graciously passed it on to me for safe keeping.  Historical evidence shows that the Cherokee practiced the Booger Dance until around the middle of twentieth century when it was abandoned until a recent resurrection.  We can only hope that the 21st Century Cherokees will once again make Booger Masks and participate in the Booger Dance to perhaps help the world deal with its current evil and track of human destruction.




Funderburk, Emma L and Mary D. Foreman                            




Grant, Woodrow W.                                                               

Personal Communication



Hudson, Charles                                                                      




Wetmore, Ruth Y.