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.

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 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.

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. Although kachina dolls are often given to Hopi children, they are not a toy. 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.

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.

The 14th Annual Katsina Doll Marketplace!

This event held April 11, 2015 at the Heard Museum is the nation’s largest gathering of Hopi katsina doll carvers and provided an amazing opportunity to meet some of the most prominent carvers working today.