Dogon Masked By Ancestors Cultural Studies Essay

Published: Last Edited:

This essay has been submitted by a student. This is not an example of the work written by our professional essay writers.

Since the 1920s when the Dogon became famous for the masquerade ceremonies, the Western world has been intrigued by these sub-Saharan cliff dwellers. This intrigue creates tensions revolving around preserving traditions and allowing traditions to assimilate with the larger world. Understanding the dynamic between Western assimilation and Dogon traditionalism provides a valuable comprehension of this tension. The Dogon traditional society revolves around reverence for ancestors. This reverence translates through their religion, social structure, gender roles and art. Tourist's demand promotes greater tradition retention encouraging a shallower ethnic identity despite globalism induced cultural and structural assimilation so the Dogon are now, even more so, masked by ancestors.

The Dogon, an ethnic minority in Mali West Africa, compose less than two percent of the population (250,000 people) and have a long history of past conflicts. Inhabitants live chiefly in Mali's Bandiagara and Douentza districts. These districts orient in the south-east of Mali, below the Sahara Desert. The Dogon primarily concentrate in 300 villages along the 100-mile long cliffs of Bandiagara. Archaeology indicates the Dogon migrated into the Bandiagara escarpment around the 15th century (Bierle, 1996, p. 71). These migrations unfortunately, illuminate a long history of conflicts with their neighbors. One can still see degenerating ,defensive walls enclosing their villages (Tait, 1950, 175). From the 14th to late 19th centuries, succeeding empire building (such as the Mali Empire, Songai Empire, the Bambara empire, and the Fula Massina Empire) caused disruption and promoted violence. Thus there was not a one time, single migration of a homologous culture but a migration comprising multiple cultures and migration flows seeking shelter in Bandiagara's isolated escarpment (Blier, 2004, p. 39). The Bandiagara region offers an easily defensible area providing difficult terrain for horses. The rise of the Fula Massina Empire summoned the Bandiagara's defenses to the front. Seku Amadu, founder of the Fula Massina Empire led a jihad against the Bambara Empire in 1818 (Blier, 2004, p. 40). Having a traditionally animist religion, the Dogon resisted Seku Amadu and his successors forced assimilation. Seku Amadu forced many of the Dogon people into slavery and conversion to Islam. Amadu, wanting to create a theocratic state, in accordance with Islamic law, decreed ancestral dancing illegal. These persecutions marginalized the Dogon people as their neighbors adopted Islam (Blier, 2004, p. 40). Shortly, another conflict occurred- the advent of European imperialism. In the 1890s, as French imperialism increased, Dogon strongly opposed and resisted French colonizers aided by their geographics. The colonization also increasingly marginalized the Dogon, as their neighbors further assimilated to the French colonizers. Although the Dogon have been more successful in retaining their traditional ideologies and practices they have not been exempt to external pressures (Blier, 2004, p. 40). Later, in the essay, current conflicts will explore this dynamic.

Focusing on the Dogon's daily life, such as language and subsistence, provides appreciation for the contemporary conflict. The Dogon speak several different dialects, the most ancient being dyamsay and tombo. The Dogon language family is classified within the voltaic subfamily spoken in eastern, West Africa. The Dogon men, in a religious society called awa, also speak Sigi So, a secret and highly religious language. (Tait, 1950, p. 176). Despite speaking traditional languages the Dogon also speak more universal languages like Bambara and French (Tait, 1950, p. 176).For subsistence, the Dogon are primarily agriculturists., growing crops such as millet, sorghum, rice, onions, and beans (Bierle, 1996, p. 72). Due to increasing population and unemployment most Dogon societies practice remittance. Many Dogon men leave villages for work in Mali and Cote d'Ivoire's cities of sending incomes back to their families (Bierle, 1996, p. 71).

Gender roles in marriage and occupation illustrate the Dogon daily life as well. Although the most prevalent form of marriage is monogamy, the Dogon also practice polygyny. Before the first child's birth, the wife lives at her parent's home and her husband resides in the bachelor residences (Bierle, 1996, p. 72). Pottery and spinning are women's domain, whereas weaving and basketry are male's domain. In subsistence, men hunt, husband livestock, clear and fertilize fields, while women cooperate in weeding, harvesting the grain, sowing and tending seasonal crops (Bierle, 1996, p. 72). Dogon's gender divisions are not the only social structure.

The Dogon's social structure is highly complex from the father's role to the chieftain's, all falling under a segmented lineage system. Their houses cluster around the "great house" called a ginna, the ginna is a fundamental unit in the lineage system making up an extended family (Bierle, 1996, p. 71). The father, the authority of the household unit, controls both the family's economic and ceremonial functions. Following the patrilineal nature the property of a family is inherited by the eldest son (Bierle, 1996, p. 72). Each isolated district in the area has a leader called a Hogon. He, a senior of a lineage, bestowed with both religious and legal responsibilities. (Tait, 1950, p. 189 and Bierle, 1996, p. 73). Hogons perform religious rites at specific shrines, enact judicial roles for serious cases, and convene and preside over a council of village elders (Tait, 1950, p. 190). Ceremonies around ancestor worship highly segment the Dogon social structure into a ritual hierarchy of maximal (hogon the lineage head), major, minor and minimal lineages (where the father of a ginna is a lineage head) (Tait, 1950, 176). Ritual responsibility is ascribed to one house at each level of segmentation, that house is consequently the ancestor shrine for the lineage of that order. If a lineage head is appointed to a higher shrine he must leave his own lineage and occupy the house containing the shrine of that superior lineage. Together, the segmentations form a lineage segment of a higher order that any division taken alone (Tait, 1950, pp.184-185). The ancestor shrine hierarchy contributes to the Dogon social structure hierarchy showing the importance of their religion.

Religion is a central aspect of the Dogon's culture. The Dogon's traditional practice is defined primarily through the worship of Amma, the creator god, their ancestors and various protector spirits. Besides the divine pantheon, ancestor worship takes precedence. The awa cult reveals this emphasis. (Bierle, 1996, p. 73). The, exclusively male, awa cult, known as the cult of the masks, adheres to strict responsibilities, taboos and the sigi so language (Thomas, 1974). The Awa society, itself, is responsible for leading and performing the rituals called Kenaga ceremonies. These rituals, enacted in elaborate dances, let the deceased leave the living world and arrive in the domain of the dead (Thomas, 1974). Masks are connected with death so are deemed hazardous both to the harvest and to women. Thus mask carving occurs away from women and after the harvest's end. Furthermore, these masks can only be seen at a dance; otherwise they are hidden from the uninitiated in a cave (Thomas, 1974). The Dogon society revolves around ancestor ceremonies dealing with death. The death ceremony's complexity is contingent on the age and social status of the dead man. Woman's funerals remain simpler, with little ceremony (Bierle, 1996, p. 73). From past pressures such as the Fula Massina Empire to Mali's current religiosity, Islam gradually gains acceptance. Most often the new Islamic features are syncretized with those of the customary religion. Since the colonization period Christian missionaries, have converted many of the Dogon. Currently, the Dogon are 10 percent Christian (Bierle, 1996, p. 73). Thus despite their strong traditions, current religiosity becomes more and more a part of their life- their ethnicity evolves.

The contemporary struggle is curiously not a struggle about ethnocide but rather touristic demand preventing ethnic growth. Due to the religious assimilation, most Dogon people are converting to Islamic and Christian faith. The conversions slowly bring about the demise of the mask's burial-right association. However, many men remain participating as a coming of age sign and as a sign of elder respect demonstrating their allegiance to communal-life (Richards, 2005, p. 50). Generally, Dogon men, working in the cities, enthusiastically return to their home villages for significant Kenaga rituals. They do so for tradition's sake but also "reinvent masks in terms of urban novelty" from their experiences abroad (Richards, 2005, p. 50). One can easily see the fluidity of their masks' ethnic markers. For example, new materials acquired in distant metropolitan centers creatively merge into the masks' form amalgamating pill packets, recycled wrappers, and shredded strips of sardine cans (Richards, 2005, p. 50). Furthermore the dancers themselves change , the contemporary Kenaga performer wear tennis-shoes, and writing presently covers the once black-and-white mask (Richards, 2005, p. 46). Despite the evolution of this identity affirming tradition, touristic encounters threaten this dynamic. Since the1920s, Dogon masked performance expanded to cater to the ever-curious Europeans (Richards, 2005, p. 48). In the 1980s, around 15,000 tourists a year came to see the Dogon. Currently that figure has doubled (van Beek, 2003, p. 268). These tourists come expecting to find a primal culture and are surprised to see the 'invasion' of global aesthetics (van Beek, 2003 p. 254). Anthropologist Polly Richards poignantly stated, "Paradoxically the very aspects of the masks evolution that have proved the strength of the tradition and its ability to survive into the twenty-first century have been taken by outsiders as proof of the masks' decline" (Richards, 2005, p. 48). In the city of Sanga, accommodating the most tourists, mask modification has taken a self-consciously traditionalist slant. Dancers are prohibited to wear any Western style cloths while performing. Furthermore, variations of the mask's form have diminished. For example, in the past, Kenaga ceremonies used more than fifty mask varieties, now they use less than twenty varieties. This lack of invention may signal a tradition in decline (Richards, 2005, p. 50). This stagnancy differs from the pattern happening in other sub-Saharan mask ceremonies, now depicting modern objects such as airplanes, tourist's cameras, and cars (Richards, 2005, p. 50). Unfortunately, the interest that tourists have in preserving the Dogon 'primal' culture has the potential to reduce the Dogon's living traditions into static stereotype. Certainly tourist interest has helped to increase Dogon ethnic pride despite the Dogon's awareness of their geographical and cultural marginality (van Beek, 2003, pp. 279, 282). Nevertheless, tourist demand to see a more primitive and thus more authentic tradition erase the 'true' Dogon living traditions. Archeologist, John Picton, aptly summarizes this problem, "Traditions do not survive for their own sake, least of all by remaining traditional" (Picton, 1992, 47). The Dogon are literally being masked by the tourist conception of their ancestors.

The Dogon, like any other ethnicity, have complex but evolving ethnicity. This complexity and evolution can be seen by their multiple languages, their subsistence practices, gender divisions, segmented social structure permeated by their ancestor-worshiping religion. Despite struggling to retain their identity during the Fula Massina Empire and European imperialism, the Dogon now struggle to move past the touristic demand for a primal culture which encourages a shallower ethnic identity. Allowing their ethnicity to self-determine and evolve will allow the Dogon' s traditions to last during this modern age of globalization.

References Cited

Beierle J..Encyclopedia of World Cultures. Dogon.  New York: Macmillan Reference USA, 1996. 71-74. Gale Virtual Reference Library. Web. 14 Oct. 2012.

Blier, S. (2004). African Creation Myths as Political Strategy. African Arts, Vol. 37, NO 1, 38-94

Picton, J, 1992, "Tradition, Technology, and Lurex." In History, Design, and Craft in West African Strip-woven Cloth: Papers Presented at a Symposium Organized by the National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution, February I8-19, 1988,pp. 13-52, Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution,

Richards, P. (2005). Masques Dogons in a Challenging World. African Arts, Vol.  38 No. 4, 46-93.

Tait, David (Jul., 1950). An Analytical Commentary on the Social Structure of the Dogon. Africa: Journal of the International African Institute, pp. 175-199 Vol. 20, No. 3 URL:

Thomas, B. (Director). (1974). African Carving: A Dogon Kanaga Mask, [Documentary]. United States: Watertown.

van Beek, W. (2003). African Tourist Encounters: Effects of Tourism on Two West African Societies. Africa: Journal of the International African Institute , Vol. 73, No. 2 pp. 251-289 URL: