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Hopi kachina dolls

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Hopi kachina dolls

Hopi katsina figures (Hopi language: tithu or katsintithu) are figures carved, typically from cottonwood root, by Hopi people to instruct young girls and new brides about katsinas or katsinam, the immortal beings that bring rain, control other aspects of the natural world and society, and act as messengers between humans and the spirit world.[1]

History and background

Cultural context

Hopi people live primarily on three mesas in Northeastern Arizona, about 70 miles from Flagstaff, Arizona. In Hopi cosmology, the majority of kastinas reside on the Humphreys Peak, approximately 60 miles west of Hopiland. Each year, throughout the period from winter solstice to mid-July, these spirits, in the form of katsinas, come down to the villages to dance and sing, to bring rain for the upcoming harvest, and to give gifts to the children.[2]

The katsinas are known to be the spirits of deities, natural elements or animals, or the deceased ancestors of the Hopi.[3] Prior to each katsina ceremony, the men of the village will spend days studiously making figures in the likeness of the katsinam represented in that particular ceremony. The figures are then passed on to the daughters of the village by the Giver Kachina during the ceremony.[4] Following the ceremony, the figures are hung on the walls of the pueblo and are meant to be studied in order to learn the characteristics of that certain Kachina. Edward Kennard, co-author of Hopi Kachinas, says concerning the purpose of the kachina figure, “Essentially it is a means of education; it is a gift at dance-time; it is a decorative article for the home, but above all it is a constant reminder of the Kachinas."[5]

History of the Katsina figure

Except for major ceremonial figures, most katsina figures originated in the late 19th century. The oldest known surviving figure dates back from the 18th century—it was a flat object with an almost indistinguishable shape that suggested a head and contained minimal body paint.[6] Kachina dolls are generally separated into four stylistic periods: the Early Traditional, Late Traditional, Early Action, and Late Action periods.[7]

Early Traditional (1850–1910)

The early forms of the katsina figure belonged to the Early Traditional Period. Only one piece of cottonwood root was used to carve the body, although facial features made from varying sources were occasionally glued on. The figures were no longer than 8-10 inches and only somewhat resembled human proportions. Their surfaces were not as smooth as in later periods, and the paint was made of non water-resistant mineral and vegetable pigments. The dolls in this period were stiff and only meant to be hung on the wall after ceremonies.[8] Starting around 1900, the dolls began to have a more naturalistic look to them as a result of the white man’s interest and trade. The price of dolls in this period was on average about $0.25 (adjusted for today’s currency).[9]

Late Traditional (1910–1930)

During the Late Traditional Period subtle changes began to take place towards the creation of more realistic–looking dolls. They were more proportional and the carving and painting was much more detailed. Eastern tourist attraction to the Hopi reservation increased in popularity from 1910-1920 due to the increased interest in Native American culture.[10] The elders restricted the tourists from seeing the religious Kachina ceremonies, and consequently there was a notable decline in doll production for commercial purposes.[11]

Early Action (1930–1945)

In the beginning of the 20th century, oppressive agents such as Charles Burton tried to restrict the Hopis' religious and cultural rights.[12] However, in 1934, due to the Indian Reorganization Act, the Hopi people got back their religious freedom, and this thus renewed their interest in kachina doll carving.[13] The dolls began to have a slightly different look than that of the stiff dolls from earlier periods. The arms were starting to become separated from the body and the heads became slightly overturned, putting the dolls in more of an action pose. Commercial and poster paints were used and the regalia became more organic, as some of the dolls were dressed in real clothing instead of clothing that was merely painted on.[14] The average price of a katsina figure during this period was about $1 an inch.[15]

Late Action (1945—present)

The Late Action period of kachina figures contains the most variations of carvings than any other period. Most dolls of this period display realistic body proportions and show movement, which are distinguishing features of this period.[16] The regalia in this period are more detailed and in the 1960s, carvers began to attach bases to the dolls in order to appeal to the tourists who didn’t want to hang the dolls on their walls.[17] In the 1970s the Endangered Species Act and Migratory Bird Treaty banned the selling of kachina figures that carried any migratory, wild bird feathers from birds such as eagles.[18] As a result, the feathers of the dolls would be carved into the wood, which led to a new brand of Hopi art—the katsina sculpture.[19] As the dolls became more extravagant and the consumer demand went up, the prices of dolls also rose significantly. Prices today range on average from $500 to $1,000, and it is not unusual to see a carved figure up to $10,000.[20]

Kachina dolls today

Most Hopi manufacturers today that sell dolls do it for trade and do not necessarily make dolls that reflect authentic kachinam.[21] Kachina ceremonies are still held, but have to now be scheduled around the men’s jobs, schools, and businesses and are usually held on weekends.[22] The dolls today are much more exquisite than those of the past and are very expensive. Women carvers are becoming more common, making miniature dolls that are especially popular in the trade.[23]

The Heard Museum in Phoenix and the Southwest Museum in Los Angeles are now home to the major collections of Hopi kachina figures.[24]

Kachina doll features

General features

There are four generally accepted forms of the kachina doll; each form is meant to represent a different stage of postnatal development.

  1. Putsqatihu – these dolls are made specifically for infants; these are simply flat figures that contain enough characteristics of the kachina so it is identifiable.
  2. Putstihu taywa’yla – these dolls have flat bodies and three dimensional faces that are generally meant for toddlers.
  3. Muringputihu – these dolls have cylindrical bodies, fully carved heads, and are meant specifically for infant girls.
  4. Tithu – the traditional, full bodied kachina doll that is given to Hopi girls aged two and up at Hopi ceremonies. These dolls represent the final stage of postnatal development.[25]

In addition to these traditional forms, a modern variation is now being created: the miniature kachina doll. These are mostly created by Hopi women, are only produced for trade, and are not considered kachina dolls in the true sense.[26]

Facial features

There are two types of kachina doll eyes: painted eyes, which can be round, rectangular, pot-hooks, or half-moons, and pop eyes, which are carved of wood and then attached to the doll.[27]

Additionally, there are two types of doll mouths. The first is the painted mouth, which can be either rectangular, triangular, or crescent shaped. The other is the carved mouth, of which there is either a horizontal mouth with a wide or narrow beard, a beak that is turned up or down, a tube or a short snout.[27]

On the doll’s head one will find either bird wings, ears (which are typically large and red), corn-husk flowers, hair, feathers, or horns. The horns can either be pseudo-horns or real animal horns.[28]

The noses are rarely realistic-looking, except when they are carved into the wood. Some kachinas also have beards of feathers or red-dyed horse hair.[27]


There are several common outfits on kachina figures. Typical male regalia includes:

  • A white kilt, brocaded sash, belt, fox skin, and no shirt
  • White shirt and kilt
  • Kilt and ceremonial robe
  • A “white man’s” suit
  • Velvet shirt, white trousers, red leggings
  • Fox skin hanging from belt[29]

Common female regalia includes:

  • Ceremonial robe worn as a dress and a shawl
  • Manta
  • Eagle feather skirt
  • Black woolen dress, red belt, and a white shawl with red and blue bands[30]

Kachina dolls can also carry accessories that are associated with what their respective Kachinam will carry during the ceremonial dances.[31] Dolls are portrayed with accessories including hand rattles made from gourds, bows and arrows, branches of Douglas fir, staffs, scissors, crooks with children, and colored corn. Sometimes, to hide the space between the body and the mask, ruffs made of fox skin, juniper branches, Douglas fir, or cloth will be worn. In addition, headdresses are sometimes worn on the heads of the dolls. Common doll headdresses include maiden-whorls on the sides of the head, an eagle feather on the mask, or a tripod of sticks worn on top of the head.[32]

Symbolism and color

Every symbol, color, and design on a Hopi kachina doll has definite meaning in connection with Hopi religion, custom, history, and way of life.[33] Animal tracks, bird tracks, celestial symbols, and vegetable symbols represent those particular spirits. Other symbols and their meanings are as follows:

  • A pair of vertical lines under the eyes symbolizes a warrior’s footprints.
  • An inverted “V” signifies certain kachina officials.
  • Phallic symbols represent fertility.[27]

Certain colors on the kachina dolls also have significant directional meanings:

  • Yellow = north or northwest
  • Blue-green = west or southwest
  • Red = south or southeast
  • White = east or northeast
  • All the colors together = Zenith (heaven) and above
  • Black = Nadir (the underworld) or down[34]

Determining an authentic Kachina doll

This first sign of a fake kachina doll is if it is “garish or crudely made."[35] An authentic kachina doll will have proper proportioning of the body and excessive detail. Hands must have separated fingers rather than tightly closed fists. Details in hair and accessories should be meticulously fashioned. The most valuable dolls are made from only one piece of wood; signs of glue on the figure indicate a poorly made doll. The price will usually reflect the quality, so if a doll seems inexpensive, there is a good possibility it is not a true Hopi kachina doll.[36]

Popular Kachina dolls

There are well over 200 types of kachina dolls;[37] however, almost no one can identify every single one, as each carver has a different idea as to the appearance and function of each Kachina.[38] There are several popular ones with tourists and Hopi, however. Some of the more popular dolls are the Tasapkachina (Navajo Kachina), Angakchina (Long hair), Hote, and animal dolls such as Bear, Bird, and Mouse.[39]



  • Branson, Oscar, T. Hopi Indian Kachina Dolls. Tucson: Treasure Chest Publications, 1992.
  • Bromberg, Eric. The Hopi Approach to the Art of Kachina Doll Carving. West Chester: Schiffer Publishing, 1986.
  • Colton, Harold S. Hopi Kachina Dolls. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press. 1959.
  • Earle, Edwin. Hopi Kachinas. New York: Museum of the American Indian Heye Foundation, 1971.
  • Hunt, W. Ben. Kachina Dolls. Milwaukee: Milwaukee Public Museum, 1957.
  • James, Harry C. The Hopi Indians, Their History and their Culture. Caldwell: Caxton Printers, 1956.
  • Loftin, John D. Religion and the Hopi Life. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2003.
  • McManis, Kent. A Guide to Hopi Kachina Dolls. Tucson: Rio Nuevo Publishers, 2000.
  • Teiwes, Helga. Kachina Dolls: The Art of Hopi Carvers. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1991.
  • Wright, Barton. This is a Hopi Kachina. Flagstaff: The Museum of Northern Arizona, 1965.

External links

  • Native paths: American Indian art from the collection of Charles and Valerie Diker, an exhibition catalog from The Metropolitan Museum of Art (fully available online as PDF), which contains material on Hopi Kachina dolls
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