Kachinas: Spirit Dolls of the Pueblo

A “kachina” is a supernatural spirit in the religion of the Pueblo native people of the Southwest, primarily the Hopi, Zuni, Hopi-Tewa, and Keresan. These tribes live in the Southwest, mostly in present-day New Mexico, Arizona, and Texas, along the Rio Grande and Colorado Rivers and their tributaries.

Kachina spirits are personifications of things in the universe. Pueblo's belief holds that all objects have a life force or essence and that humans can interact with these forces. There are kachinas for the sun, stars, wind, storms, corn, animals (even insects), trees and plants, the land or land formations, and even ancestors. Each is viewed as a powerful being that, if given veneration and respect, may interact with a person in a benevolent way. Kachina spirits can be summoned to bring rainfall, a good crop, courting, fertility, healing, protection, success in war, etc.

As part of honoring the spirits, some tribes—primarily the ancient Hopi and Zuni—began a tradition of creating kachina dolls that personified various spirits. In the 1800s and early 1900s, it is believed that the Hopi recognized more than 200 kachina dolls representing various spirits. (Even more types were developed in the last half of the 1900s.) Kachina dolls were given to children as sacred objects to be treasured as part of their religious training. During kachina ceremonies, each child would receive a doll. Among the Hopi, kachina dolls were traditionally carved usually by maternal uncles and given to uninitiated girls at the “Bean Dance,” during the Spring Bean Planting Ceremony. During this ceremony, kachina dancers would dress in masks and spectacular garb of the kachina spirit he or she represented.

In Hopi, “kachina” means “life bringer” and kachina dolls are valued as helping children and adults conjure spiritual powers to help them in life. Kachina dolls are wildly colorful and fanciful, usually carved from cottonwood roots. The earliest kachina dolls that have been identified date back to 1,300 A.D. The earlier dolls were carved, the more simple their construction. Early kachinas were carved with arms next to the body and hands on their stomachs. The hands were simply clubs with no fingers. As time and the tradition and carving tools progressed, the intricacy of the dolls increased. Today dolls are spectacularly decorated in phantasmagoric detail. Despite the increased intricacy, the older, simpler dolls are more valuable because of their rarity.

Settlers and later, tourists, were enamored of kachina dolls, and Hopi and Zuni

villages began making kachina dolls for the tourist market and to generate income. (Even the Navajo, who did not have a kachina tradition, began making the dolls for the tourist trade.) The collector’s market for genuine antique kachina dolls is very competitive. The most expensive doll sold at auction fetched $300,000. The value of dolls is based on age, condition, size, and design. Generally, an older, mid-size kachina in good condition from the 1930s can be purchased for around $1,200 to $1,500, while a very good doll that is either rare, old or larger will generally sell for between $8,000 and $12,000.

Today kachina dolls represent hundreds of spirits, including some common religious spirits like White Cloud Dancer, Zuni Rain Priest, Morning Singer, Medicine Man, Snow Dancer, Crow Makes You Other, Corn Maiden, Buffalo Warrior, and Rainbow, to name just a few. One widely recognizable and iconic symbol of the Pueblo tribes is the Kokopelli kachina. Represented by a humpbacked flute player, he is venerated as a fertility deity.

One traditional kachina figure is named “Priest Killer” after a Hopi warrior who beheaded a Catholic priest during the Pueblo Revolt in 1680 in a rebellion to resist the Church’s forced conversions and maintain their own religion. In the 16th century, Spanish sailors wrote about kachina dolls as "strange images of the devil" hanging in Hopi homes. But, likewise, the Hopi regarded the Christian Spanish as the devil and a threat to their very existence. They managed to preserve their religion and their colorful tradition of kachina dolls. In fact, kachinas have not only survived into modernity but are now a thriving tradition that has only grown in imagination and intricacy, richness, and recognition.


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