Guide to Hopi Kachina (katsina) Dolls

Guide to Hopi Kachina (katsina) Dolls logo


Hopi, (literally translated) means a person who behaves in a polite or peaceful way. The Hopi are a communal farming people who reside on and near three mesas in northeastern Arizona. More than nine thousand Hopi live on a 1.5 million-acre reservation that encompasses a dozen villages.

The word kachina (kah-chee-nah) has long been used by outsiders to refer to any of the hundreds of spiritual beings central to Hopi religious life as well as to the dolls that depict them. However, according to the Hopi, katsina (kahts-ee-nah) is more correct and preferred. In English, the plural of kachina is kachinas, but in the Hopi language the plural of katsina is katsinam.

The first known kachina dolls were obtained by traders in 1857. From then on others were picked up sporadically until about the end of the 19th century. Little is known about these except that they were basically simple in style, with slightly detailed masks and simplified bodies. 

How Kachina dolls are made

Kachina doll making today involves both tradition and artistry. Kachina dolls are traditionally carved from the roots of cottonwood trees which once were abundant on and near the Hopi lands. The Hopi word for cottonwood root is paako, which means water wood, and the cotton-wood root's ability to seek and find abundant water mirrors the ability of the katsinam to do the same for the Hopi people.

Cottonwood Root
Cottonwood Root

Today's carvers may travel hundreds of miles throughout the Southwest looking for this special material. And some Hopi carvers purchase cottonwood roots from outsiders. Other carvers have resorted to using cottonwood branches, while still others have abandoned using cottonwood altogether in favor of a more abundant and easily obtainable material, such as tupelo, a swamp wood from the southeastern United States.

Carving Tools
Carving Tools

Tools are adapted to remove bark, to smooth the wood, to form and finish the piece, and often to make any necessary additional parts, such as head pieces, of a tiny rattle or bow, or various body parts. These tools include hand saws, mallets, hatchets, hammers, chisels, rasps, and knives; from pocket to butcher styles.

Formerly dolls were made as a single piece, particularly the simpler ones. Some of those with large headpieces or great ears had these carved as separate pieces, then they were attached to the body. Today arms, legs, headpiece, and sometimes even the head itself may all be carved separately and then joined to the body. Despite the elaborate nature of some of the latter, the doll made from a single piece of wood is still favored above all others by savvy collectors.

The Carving Process
The Carving Process

After the doll is completely carved and assembled, it is given an all-over whitewash, usually with native kaolin clay, although modern substitutes may be used. Then follows the detailed painting, formerly with native mineral or vegetal dyes, later with water colors or tempera (poster paints long a favorite), and today with modern acrylics; a superior medium in all respects. Paints were applied in earlier years and for quite some time thereafter with yucca brushes; today any brush may be used, including some of sable.

Various other items are added last. A ruff about the neck was formerly made of green-bough, this followed by substitute materials such as plastics, and with yarns a favored material today. Objects placed in the hands are carefully made, such as rattles, bows, and knives. Jewelry may be painted on the doll, or tin and blue commercial beads may be used to depict silver and turquoise. 

Necklaces, bow guards, earrings, and bracelets are also made of these materials. Clothing runs the gamut from carved and painted semblances on the wood to actual pieces of cloth with proper decoration on each garment. Fur from small native animals have long been favored for ruffs about the neck; today these may be replaced by commercial fur. Formerly colored feathers from specific birds were used to decorate the headpieces of specific kachinas; today feathers come from domestic fowl or sparrows, or are carved. 

Masks are the most important part of the doll, as is true in the kachina which it represents, for this feature truly identifies the kachina's persona. Certain Hopi customs are reflected in some kachina details; so too are some of their legends or myths. When young girls are ready for marriage their hair is done up in two great whorls, one at each side of the head, as represented in many "Kachin Manas" or female kachinas. However, on Warrior Maiden there is one whorl only, with the hair at the other side of the head hanging loose. The story goes that long ago this maiden was dressing when the enemy suddenly appeared. Although her hair was but half done, she picked up her father's weapons and successfully defended her village.

In the modern doll, anatomy is frequently well presented, which is another great advance in carving. In the currently well-made pieces, not only is there modeling in form but also a show of muscles, in both features in the body proper as well as in arms and legs, all of this producing a more realistic figure. A few carvers have exaggerated these features to the point of the grotesque. Further, pieces are often today referred to as action dolls, for the artist presents the body, arms and legs in positions of motion in the dance. It is in the beautifully modeled action doll that some Hopi carvers have crossed over from the crafts into the realm of the fine arts.

Minature Hopi Kachinas (katsinam)
Miniature Kachinas

Objects appearing in the hands of the kachina dolls, often indicate to some degree what he does or who he is. For example, these items might include bows, rattles, sticks, staffs, yucca whips, or even a sword-like affair, a saw, or a butcher knife. Yucca whips are appropriately carried by the Whipper Kachinas, to be used to strike blows on the young initiates and on each other during the proper ceremony. Or such whips may also be in the hands of some of the Guard Kachinas, to be used, if necessary, to keep crowds from moving in too close to a ceremony. One or two sticks will be carried in the hands of Deer, Antelope, and some other Animal Kachinas to represent their front legs. Disciplinary Ogre Kachinas are frequently equipped with all too realistic butcher knives or saws, bows and clubs to frighten the children, or they carry baskets on their backs into which they might threaten to throw a naughty child.

Although kachina dolls are often given to Hopi children, they are not a toy. From about one-year old until they are ten, Hopi girls receive two dolls each year. A well-carved kachina doll is easy to admire as a work of art, but the real spirit of tihu is found within. Kachina dolls are representations of benevolent spirit beings who live among the Hopi for a six-month period each year. They first arrive on the Hopi mesas in February and return to their spiritual homes in July. Kachina tradition is unique only to the Pueblo Tribes of Arizona and New Mexico. Kachina's are spiritual rain messengers that bring special blessings as an indigenous part of Hopi spirituality; the Kachina cult


The Hopi Kachina Cult

Aholi Kachina

Bear Kachina

Clown Kachina

Crow Mother

Eagle Kachina

Eototo Kachina

Fox Kachina

Kokopelli Kachina

Morning Singer Kachina

Mudhead Kachina

Snow Kachina

Sun Kachina

Wolf Kachina

Wupamo Kachina





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