Kachina Dolls

In the cosmological world of the Southwest's Puebloan traditions, the masked figures called "kachinas," or "katsinam," personify supernatural beings who live in neighboring sacred landscapes, serving as wise and benevolent intermediaries between the people and their deities. Kachinas, according to Puebloan belief, convey their spirit to those who wear the magical masks and mysterious dress of particular figures and who perform the esoteric rituals of the holy ceremonies. Effigies, or "dolls," crafted by Puebloan artisans serve as revered symbols used in teaching new generations about specific kachina forms and their particular spiritual role.



Centuries old, kachina masked dancing cults still play a particularly strong role in the spiritual life of the Hopis, who live in 13 villages scattered across three mesas in northeastern Arizona. A cult embraces every man, woman and child. It renews and solidifies their tribal identity, informing their religious life.

"The basic concept of the cult," said Barton Wright in his informative book Hopi Kachinas: The Complete Guide to Collecting Kachina Dolls, "is that all things in the world have two forms, the visible object and a spirit counterpart, a dualism that balances mass and energy. Kachinas are the spirit essence of everything in the real world." The dolls, or "tithu," in the Hopi language, take their special aura as collections from the kachinas' religious attributes.

Kachina Origins
Kachina cults probably made their first appearance among the pueblos of the Southwest around the 13th and 14th centuries, according to the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology's On-line Exhibition Internet site, although their prototypes may have arrived considerably earlier, some archaeologists have argued. Kachina-like figures appear on ceramics from various pueblos; in rock art, for instance, at Hueco Tanks, in far west Texas, and Three Rivers, in south central New Mexico; and in kiva (Puebloan ceremonial chamber) murals, for example at the Kuaua Pueblo, now the Coronado State Monument, in north central New Mexico, by the 14th century. Some kachinas have features that suggest roots in Mesoamerica - the great prehistoric city states of Mexico. For instance, some have goggle eyes, snarling mouths and step-fret designs that appear similar to the Mesoamerican Tlaloc's, or Storm God's, eyes, mouth and associated designs.

Finely carved kachina dolls for sale at the S&R Group's specialty retail store, La Zia, Mesilla, New Mexico.  (The S&R group also has stores in Tularosa, New Mexico; El Paso, Texas; and Tucson, Arizona.)

In a pueblo on the middle Rio Grande, in central New Mexico, kachina figures commanded the attention of Gaspar Pérez de Villagrá, chronicler of Juan de Oñate's Spanish colonizing expedition into the Southwest in 1598:

Within those houses we then saw
A mighty store which they had there
Of haughty demons pictured,
Ferocious and extremely terrible,
Which clearly showed to us they were their gods,
Because the god of water near the water
Was well painted and figured out.
The god of the mountains, too, near the mountains,
And next to fishes, seeds, battles,
Were all the rest that they revere
As gods of those things that they had.


Kachinas have given expression and force to the Puebloan religions - infinitely variable and intricately woven spiritual tapestries of deities, prior and future worlds, supernatural events and divine interventions. As with other Puebloan communities, "The driving force of the Hopi religion," said Wright "is the urgent need for water in any form, as rain for farming, for drinking water in the spring, or snow to replenish the land. Water is forever the primary motivation. To survive in this waterless land, the Hopi developed a complex religion to secure supernatural assistance in fulfilling their needs."

The Starry-eyed Man, a famous prehistoric pictograph (or, painted) mask at Hueco Tanks State Historic Site in far west Texas.  Symbolic starry eyes like those on this mask still appear on kachina doll faces.

The Hopis, said Meldan Tanrisal, in "The Hopi Kachina Cult: Religion and Ritual as Elements of Cultural Identity Preservation," Journal of American Studies of Turkey (which, in spite of its name, publishes comparative studies of many cultures worldwide), believes that when certain of their people die, they "become spirit beings, or kachinas... As well as being spirits of the dead, Kachinas also can represent the spirits of the animals, plants, minerals, stars and natural forces. Consequently, there is a specialized, particular Kachina for everything under the sun."

Another prehistoric pictograph mask at Hueco Tanks.  The almond-shaped eyes like those on this mask appear on many kachina doll faces.

While Hopi kachinas number well into the hundreds, with individuals often bearing multiple names and variations, a few of the more important ones, according to Tanrisal, include:

  • The Chief Kachina, who helps assure abundant crops, especially corn, and a long rich life;
  • The Crow Mother, who helps promote Nature's fertility and helps initiate new members into the cult;
  • The Long-haired Kachina, who wears long hair that suggests falling rain;
  • The Black Ogre and the White Ogre, who reinforce parents' discipline of their children;
  • The White Bear Kachina, who possesses the ability to cure sickness;
  • The Guard Kachina, who stands sentinel over the most sacred kachinas;
  • The Mudhead Kachina, who satirizes Hopi behavior and promotes community harmony;
  • The Clown Kachina, who lampoons gluttony and deliberately embarrasses people; and
  • The Great Horned Owl Kachina, who disciplines Clown Kachinas for unacceptably outrageous behavior.

The Kachina Season
Following an ancient timetable, the Hopi kachinas begin arriving in the villages on the three mesas of northeastern Arizona at the beginning of winter each year, and they will remain there until the middle of summer. They mark their stay with elaborate and extended ceremony and ritual, with the village men always serving as both the male and the female kachinas.

A Chief Kachina initiates the visit, according to the Peabody Internet site, by singing sacred songs as he follows a trail, walking like a feeble old man, into a village. Upon arrival, he opens the principal ceremonial chamber, or kiva, signaling that it is time for the kachina community to emerge.

While the village celebrates the beginning with storytelling and ritual, the earliest kachinas mark the winter solstice with Soyalangwu - nine days of ceremonies and prayers - turning the course of the sun toward its summer zenith. They set the stage for renewal, procreation, fertility, the coming growing season. In the following weeks, the kachinas lead village dances, depicting the wildlife of the snowy mountains and issuing prayers for water.

A petroglyph (or, chiseled) masked dancer at the Three Rivers Petroglyph Site in south-central New Mexico, with another example of almond-shaped eyes. Come February, more kachinas arrive, now for Powamuya - the Bean Dance - when they help the village in preparations for the growing season and initiate children into the society of kachinas. The kachinas now conduct rituals to promote the germination and growth of crop seeds. They plant a pot with beans, with the successful growth of sprouts foretelling success for the village's upcoming crops. On the 16th day of Powamuya, they give away bean sprouts, dolls and other presents. The Black and White Ogre kachinas caution children to behave. Kachina dolls, received as gifts, will be hung in a place of honor in the homes of the people.

Through winter and into June - the height of planting season, especially for corn - the kachinas hold intermittent ceremonial dances in kivas and plazas - a spiritual appeal for adequate rainfall and abundant crops. They stage footraces, which vest the men and boys with strong healthy bodies and assure vitality for procreation.


Just after the summer solstice, the kachinas begin a 16-day home-going ceremony - Niman - a time of kiva rituals and public dance. They appear in the plaza with their arms full of green corn stalks, signifying a forthcoming abundant harvest. They give more dolls and other presents to the children. On the last night, after a farewell speech, they turn toward the west, sprinkled with cornmeal, following a pathway sprinkled with cornmeal, headed for their sacred mountains, where they will remain, spiritually, until the following winter.

The Craftsmen
Originally, the Puebloan artisan - working, always, with the roots of the cottonwood tree - used stone tools to carve a solid, simply designed kachina effigy, or doll; sandstone to polish the figure; and plant- and mineral-derived paints to decorate it. Typically, a kachina gave the doll away as a gift during ceremonies and rituals, usually to a young girl. He expected the doll to be used to illustrate the features and explain the religious role of a particular kachina, and he knew it would be accorded a place of honor in the girl's home.

With the coming of Spanish-speaking people from Mexico and English-speaking people from the United States, the artisans discovered, not only new tools and materials for their craft, but also a market for their work. Over time, the artisans refined and expanded their skills, producing elaborately designed dolls, not only for the traditional ceremonies and rituals, but also for eager collectors. Their respective styles reflected their cultural traditions.

For instance, the artisans of Acoma, a thousand-year-old mesa-top pueblo 70 miles west of Albuquerque, have traditionally produced "dolls with cylindrical bodies and stylized heads," said Wright. "The image is usually draped with a bit of cloth and strings with beads of turquoise or shell wrapped about the body. A few feathers complete the doll." They have produced a relatively small volume of work, often making their dolls difficult to find.

Tlaloc (or, Mesoamerican storm god) figure, a pictograph at Hueco Tanks, with goggle eyes and body designs similar to those found on many kachina dolls.  Tlaloc may have been a prototype for some kachina figures.

The artisans of the Zuñi pueblos, where Coronado visited in 1540, produced dolls "distinguishable in usually having movable limbs and tiny feet and in being dressed in miniature clothing. The dolls are almost always taller and thinner than those carved by the Hopi."

The artisans of the Hopi villages - where the masked dancing cults have remained the strongest - produce the greatest diversity and the largest number of dolls by a considerable margin. Their work has formed the nucleus, if not the entirety, of most collections. While remaining true to the original purpose of producing dolls as kachina ceremonial gifts, they have also reached out for collectors, often bringing considerable artistry to their craft.

In creating a doll, said Wright, the traditional Hopi artisan must first find a suitable cottonwood root, which is becoming increasingly rare and expensive as demand has grown. (He will reject all other woods.) After curing the root, he typically works with metal tools, including a handsaw, a butcher knife and mallet, chisels, rasps and sandpaper to sculpt the doll's torso, head and limbs. (He refuses to use power tools.) He assembles the doll's parts with pegs and white glue. He coats the doll with a thick, creamy clay, which he makes from natural deposits, sealing the pores of the wood and providing a white surface for painting.

Although he likely now uses modern acrylic-based paints, he applies body designs and colors faithful to his particular kachina model.

He then applies the final parts - for instance, bows, rattles, shells, kilts, feathers - required to make the doll an authentic representation of the kachina. "Where the historic carver was content to symbolize or simplify the carving," said Wright, "the modern carver pushes realism to its utmost. To accomplish this he has but to turn to the treasure chest of contemporary American goods..."

Morning Singer Kachina, exquisitely carved by a Hopi artisan, for sale at La Zia. Collecting Kachinas
Collecting the dolls, you soon discover that you can choose from a diverse, extensive and ever-evolving cast of kachina characters, even including a whimsical Mickey Mouse "kachina."

You may make your choices based, for instance, on criteria such as Puebloan tradition and style, antiquity, artisanship or sheer whimsy. If you collect Hopi dolls, you might choose from among particular kachina forms, which may have considerable differences from village to village.

While there may be considerable variability even for specific forms, you can often distinguish at least some Chief Kachinas, for instance, by a large circular mask with elaborately painted designs and adornments; the Crow Mother Kachina, by a headdress with carved extended crow-like wings; the Long-haired Kachina, by a cascade of long hair and feathered, cloud-like plumes; the Black Ogre and White Ogre by headdresses with long flapping jaws and large head spikes; the White Bear Kachina, primarily by variations of solid colors; the Guard Kachina, by a whip in his hand; the Mudhead Kachina, by a spherical-shaped brown mask with protruding eyes, mouth and ears; the Clown Kachina, by black and white horizontal stripes on his body and a watermelon slice (or slices) in his hand; and the Great Horned Owl Kachina, by a headdress with carved extended owl-like wings.

You can learn about kachina dolls from a number of books, including, for a few examples, Wright's excellent guide; Harold S. Colton's Hopi Kachina Dolls With A Key to Their Identification; Walter J. Fewkes 1897 preliminary study Tusayan Kachinas; the Bureau of American Ethnology's 1903 Hopi Kachinas; and Rose Hauk's A Guide to Hopi Kachina Carvings. You can see extraordinary work on display in exhibits at the Babbitt Gallery in the Museum of Northern Arizona in Flagstaff and the renowned Barry Goldwater kachina collection at the Heard Museum in Phoenix.

A left-handed Kachina, distinguished by the bow carried in the right hand.

You will find kachina dolls for sale in specialty retail stores, trading posts, Indian markets, art galleries, museums, direct sales and even internet sites. You should evaluate a doll on the basis of the wood material, which, as Wright points out, should be lightweight (an indication of cottonwood) but not unduly soft (an indication of balsa wood); the carving, which should be well proportioned and free of cracks or decaying wood; the painting, which should be well delineated and free of an overly glossy surface; and accurate equipment, which should have fidelity to the kachina form represented.

You can expect to pay from a few hundred up to several thousand dollars for dolls produced since 1960 to 1970, according to James Barajas, kachina buyer, Heard Museum Shops (see the Heard Museum Internet site), and you will see the price escalate, sometimes to more than six figures, for older and well-crafted dolls. You might consider Barajas' advice to "buy from a dealer who has been in the business for more than 10 years who has a reputation to protect."

In a kachina collection, you not only will own a unique American art form, you can explore the rich and ancient spiritual realm of the Indian traditions of the Southwest.

Christine Kane, highly knowledgeable sales person at La Zia, exhibiting a Clown Kachina.

Southwestern Arts and Crafts


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