Guide to Hopi Kachina (katsina) Dolls
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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