When you think of the southwestern U.S., images of exotic wooden Kachina dolls may come to mind. You’ll see them in galleries, museums, at Native American art markets, and even at souvenir shops. If you are lucky, you’ll be introduced to a Hopi carver when you tour the Hopi Mesas, an area in Arizona where the Hopi have lived for over 2,000 years. There are so many options, it’s hard for the first-time visitor to know where to find authentic Hopi Kachina dolls and which one to buy. And what do they represent? Here is a guide to what you need to know about Hopi Kachina dolls.
Hopi Kachinas: The Ceremonial Traditions
Kachinas are spirits or humanized forms of things that exist in the Hopi world and belief system. They are said to live in and around the San Francisco Peaks (near Flagstaff, Arizona) and visit the Hopi villages at the beginning of each year and remain active for six months.
Ceremonial activities include dances. The last ceremony is held in July and is associated with the harvest. These visitations and age-old dances are key to maintaining the routine and rhythm of life for the Hopi people. The various Kachinas have powers related to the rains, celestial objects, healing, fertility, and more. This ceremonial cycle is very important to the Hopi people. The teachings about the ceremonies and Kachinas are passed down through generations. The Kachina dolls are part of the tradition, given to the children along with stories and teaching by the parents and elders.
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Learning About Hopi Kachina Dolls
There are many books written about the complex Kachina belief system and what each spirit represents. A good introduction to Kachinas is Hopi Kachina Tradition: Following the Sun and Moon by Alph Secakuku. It explains how the Kachinas appear based on the lunar and solar calendars, as well as offers good insight into how the Hopi view them.
Also, Hopi Kachinas: The Complete Guide to Collecting Kachina Dolls by Barton Wright is probably the best identification guide for many of the dolls. Both books are available at the Heard Museum Bookstore and online.
Learn from a Carver
One of the best ways to learn about a particular Kachina doll is from the carver himself. When you purchase a carving directly from a Hopi carver, listen carefully. They will point out the symbolic elements in the carving and tell you a little bit about the importance of that particular Kachina to the Hopi people. However, they will not tell you everything. If a question is not answered, let it go. There are things they are not allowed to share with outside people just as most of the ceremonial dances are not open to visitors… just the “social dances.” Any type of recording (sketching, recording, photographing) is prohibited.
Explore the Kachina Collection the Phoenix Heard Museum
Native American museums across the United States may have Kachina dolls in their collections. However, in my opinion, the largest and most extensive exhibit is the one at the Phoenix Heard Museum that spans decades of Hopi Kachina doll carving. The exhibit includes such important collections as the Barry Goldwater Kachina doll collection.
Hopi Kachina Doll Tips
As you visit with carvers, talk to knowledgeable gallery owners, and check out museum exhibits, you will start to pick up bits of knowledge that will help you in starting a Kachina doll collection. Here are a few tips for collecting Kachina dolls.
- Kachina dolls are traditionally carved from cottonwood roots. They are not usually carved in one piece. Parts such as arms and headdresses may be carved separately.
- Although both the Zuni and other Pueblo people have a belief system that includes Kachina spirits, the Hopi carvings are the ones that are discussed here and are the most commonly collected.
- Sometimes Navajo carvers make Kachina-type dolls for sale to tourists but the Kachina is not part of the Navajo spiritual tradition.
- You’ll often see the spelling of the dolls as Katsina (plural Katsinim) which is the Hopi spelling and pronunciation.
- Some carvers sell simple two-dimensional dolls. These flat dolls are representative of the first gifts given to girls at the ceremonial dance following their birth. The dolls are not toys. They are displayed in the home and are used for teaching the children.
Finding Authentic Kachina Dolls
Visit the Hopi Arts Trail
The ideal way to find the Kachina doll to start or add to a collection is to visit the Hopi Mesas in Arizona and take a guided tour on the Hopi Arts Trail or take a brochure and map and visit artists on your own. It is best to contact the artists beforehand to see if they are available for a visit. There are currently four carvers listed on the Hopi Arts Trail website. When you visit the Hopi Cultural Center, look for vendors in the parking lot area. You may find a simple, inexpensive carving. There is even a gift shop with authentic Hopi-made items at the Hopi-run hotel in Tuba City, Arizona, the Moenkopi Inn and Suites.
Hopi Kachina Doll Marketplace in Phoenix
The Heard Museum in Phoenix hosts an annual Hopi Kachina Doll Marketplace. Because of COVID restrictions this year, they modified the usually large event and featured six well-known carvers spaced throughout the large gift shop. Everyone masked up and it was a great opportunity to visit with carvers and purchase a range of Kachina dolls. The gift shop maintains an excellent selection of Hopi Kachina dolls for sale year-round, too.
Other Native American Art Markets
Juried Native American art markets, often associated with museums, are excellent places to look for authentic Hopi Kachina Dolls. The annual SWAIA Indian Market in Santa Fe, New Mexico, the annual Heard Indian Market in Phoenix, and the Hopi Heritage Weekend at the Museum of Northern Arizona in Flagstaff, Arizona always have a good selection of Hopi carvers in attendance. Buyer beware, though! Souvenir shops and shady galleries may sell colorful dancing figures, call them Kachinas, but they may not be Hopi. In fact, if the figure is inexpensive enough, a look at the bottom may turn up a label marked “Made in China”!
More Hopi Art
Not all Hopi carving work is considered a Kachina doll. Gerry Quotskuyva, one of the Hopi carvers at the recent Heard Kachina Doll Marketplace brought his “Gnarley Root.” This multi-year project involves the huge cottonwood root that he found, allowed to dry for 16 years, and he now has been carving Hopi images into the many twists and turns of the root. As he explained to me, the front of the piece will be female images while the back depicts male images and their work in Hopi life. As Gerry travels to Native American art shows I look forward to seeing him from time to time and checking on the progress of this massive undertaking. While the “Gnarley Root” is not a Kachina doll, much Hopi symbolism will be included in the finished work.
While the mysteries of the Hopi remain with the Hopi people, Hopi art and the Hopi Kachina dolls have become popular with travelers and art collectors. Learning about the Hopi Kachina dolls gives the outsider a window into the belief system and traditions of the Hopi. It is symbolic of people who are kind, peaceful, and wise and who maintain their lives according to the Hopi belief system. Check out more on Wander about exploring the Southwestern United States.