How and Why The Hopi Carve Kachina Dolls
For the Hopi, who farm on and around three high desert mesas, water, in any form, is essential. The Hopi are aided in securing water and the abundant blessings of life by the katsinam (plural for katsina). The Hopi people believe that all things--not just people, plants and animals--possess a life spirit. The katsinam embody that spirit essence. The katsinam are integral to a complex set of rituals that help maintain the core of Hopi religious belief--harmony of the universe, and of all things, living and otherwise. In a timeless act of reciprocity, the katsinam live among the Hopi for nearly half of each year, providing spiritual guidance to the people.
Katsina dolls (also known as "kachina dolls" or simply "kachinas"), carved by initiated Hopi men, personify the katsinam. They call them 'tihu,' which means a doll or a small child. The Hopi believe that when they came into this world each of them was given a gift, a different responsibility. For instance, those in the Tobacco Clan everyone is allowed to smoke and pray using tobacco.
In the Hopi tribe not everybody can carve a kachina. Each must go through religious rites of initiation to receive permission to carve and only for ceremonial purposes. The Hopi consider kachina dolls to be gifts from the Katsina Clan to the rest of the tribe.
Katsina dolls help educate young Hopi females in the roles and importance of the katsinam. Received as a gift from the katsinam during a ceremony, a doll rewards the virtuous child and brings a blessing upon her family. Simple, flat, "cradle doll" carvings are given to a baby. As a Hopi girl grows and matures, the dolls she receives become more complex. As a bride, she will be presented with a "fully formed" carving during the Niman Ceremony (Home Dance).
History of Kachina Doll Carving
While traditional katsina carvings have been created for centuries, ethnographers and other visitors to the Hopi mesas first noted and purchased dolls in the late 1800s. In subsequent decades, as more travelers visited Hopi, a few Hopi men began carving dolls for sale. Following World War II, katsina dolls carved for sale began acquiring greater detail. These elaborately detailed "action dolls" proliferated and have practically defined the art of katsina doll carving since the early 1970s.
Despite the movement toward realism over the past few decades, a few carvers persisted in making traditional-style dolls, for the commercial market, and more are following them today. Some are still carving kachina dolls in the traditional style, selling them to traders or others.
In the past few decades, a renewal of traditional-style katsina doll carving has merged with individual creative personality. Clark Tenakhongva, Philbert Honanie, Wallace Hyeoma, Tay Polequaptewa and Ferris "Spike" Satala are among the growing number of Hopi men who had chosen to maintain their cultural roots by carving tithu. Carving provides for their community, their family and their own creative needs. It also gives them a flexible work schedule, which allows them to participate in the yearlong Hopi religious calendar. The kachina, rather than being a doll, is a traditional spiritual figure within a simple form. The creation of a tihu is more than taking a knife and paint to a piece of wood.
The Process of Carving Kachina Dolls
A tihu begins with the right wood. Cottonwood root is the culturally mandated material. It is also preferred because it is soft, light and porous. More importantly, the Hopi recognize the cottonwood tree as a promise of water. Where it grows there is water. Cottonwood root fulfills the technical needs of the carver while symbolizing a spiritual link to water.
Carvers may sort through a pile of wood at the Tsakurshovi Trading Post on Second Mesa, a Hopi-owned shop that has promoted the creation of traditional carvings for more than 12 years. Some kachina artists collect their own wood at the river, picking out the best wood. They check to make sure there's no sand in the wood. Sand and rocks can easily ruin the kachina carverís knife.
Using a light handsaw, the carver cuts the wood to length and outlines the doll's basic torso, making cuts at the neck, below the arms, at the base of the kilt and often upward between the legs and arms. The contours of the head, the ruff around the neck, and the body and legs are then roughed in using a variety of knives, chisels and wood rasps. The majority of the carving is done with a simple knife.
Once the carving is complete, the doll is sanded in preparation for painting. Carvers use a variety of pigments, ranging from natural vegetal and mineral colors to acrylic and tempera paints, depending on each artist's personal vision. Most use the basic colors that are tied to Hopi. They are the colors the katsinas come in. Those are things that have always been there so for the Hopi and many do not to deviate from it.
The final step in making a doll is to adorn it with feathers and other accessories. Bits of leather, yucca fiber and shells work with the paint to give each tihu its unique personality.
Through their carving, Hopi men have centered their lives on Hopi values. When they speak, their words are infused with love and respect for their culture, their elders and their art. The "dolls" they are carving remind them to follow the Hopi way. As children they use kachina dolls to learn their tradition and language.
The last kachina dance of the year is the Home Dance, which signifies the return of the katsinam to their spiritual dwelling place. Their work done, they return to the San Francisco Peaks to dwell until called upon again by the Hopi. At dawn more than 40 katsinas will enter the plaza carrying bundles of corn stalks and melons. These gifts were laid down as the katsinam positioned themselves for the first set of dances.
After the first set, one of the katsinam will approach a young Hopi girl to give her a tihu (kachina doll). It is a blessing for her and through it, her parents will be teach her more about the Hopi culture and beliefs.
Hopi Kachina Doll Carving Today
In recent decades, a combination of collector demand, the increased availability of more sophisticated tools and the enforcement of various animal protection laws have led to the development of a new style of katsina doll--intricately detailed carvings made completely of wood. Coined "hyper-realistic" or "action style," these dolls feature well-defined body parts and action poses. Hand-held power tools and woodburning tools are often employed to create feathers, fur and shells. They are often finished with delicate wood-stain painting. The style requires great patience and skill, and commands higher prices than the traditional style.
Bassman, T.(1991). Hopi Kachina Dolls and Their Carvers.
Teiwes, H. (1992). Kachina Dolls: The Art of Hopi Carvers.
Day, J. S. (2000). Traditional Hopi Kachinas: A New Generation of Carvers.