Kachinas - Doll or Religious Symbol?

And They Are...??

Kachinas ... Are they toys? Are they "collector dolls"? Are they religious symbols so ingrained in a culture that their entire religion is based on them? To answer: No, Yes and YES!!!

Kachinas are wonderful works of symbolic religious art and one of the most sought after and interesting items made by today's Native American artists. They are stylish, personal and can be a fun piece of Native American culture.


The Kachina is a highly revered religious symbol for the Hopi, the "righteous people," or the "correct people". Because of that tradition, they have been more successful than almost any other tribe in the United States in preserving their traditions. To the Hopi, one the of most sacred aspects of their life is their religion - the Kachina religion. The Hopi's lives were centered around Kachina dances, agriculture, social dances and other religious activities.


Kachinas are the spirit essences of everything in the real world.

Kachina (kuh CHEE nah) dolls are not playtoys, but "messengers" from the spiritual world who bring such things as rain and fertility to the Hopi people. They are friends and visitors; they bring gifts and food; they guide every aspect of a person's existence. They control nature and have the spirit of natural elements such as wind, rain, thunder, lightening, clouds and snow. They could also have the spirits of living things such as plants, animals, or the spirits of ancestoral people who had once lived a good life and return in various Kachina disguises. The Hopi believe Kachinas possess a large amount of wisdom and power, almost like a religious elder.

A Kachina Prayer

When I am too old and feeble to follow my sheep or cultivate my corn, I plan to sit in the house, carve Katicina dolls, and tell my nephews and nieces the story of my life... Then I want to be buried in the Hopi way. Perhaps my boy will dress me in the costume of a Special Officer, place a few beads around my neck, put a paho and some sacred corn meal in my hand, and fasten inlaid turquoise to my ears. If he wishes to put me in a coffin, he may do even that, but he must leave the lid unlocked, place food near by, and set up a grave ladder so that I can climb out. I shall hasten to my dear ones, but I will return with good rains and dance as a Katcina in the plaza with my ancestors...

Don Talayesva (late 19th century) Hopi Sun Clan chief

There are three types of kachinas:

  • Supernatural Beings
  • Human Personification
  • Dolls or ti'hu'

Info snippet: Did you know that... there is a Kachina character called the Ogre Kachina (he's a Clown Kachina). The Ogre's job is to "frighten" little children into obeying their parents and elders. If they're naughty, the Ogre will come and eat them, but the parents step in at the last minute, telling the Kachina that they will behave better. Sounds cruel? Well, subsisting in the hard, cruel environment of the high desert is trying and the tribe's future depends on cooperation of all its members.

And, there is a heirarchy of Kachinas:

  • Chiefs
  • Guards
  • Clowns

Kachina season for the Hopi is from late December to July. This is when men dress as Kachinas and perform dances in hopes of bringing rain, a good crop, health and abundance. This is when the dancers give gifts of Kachina dolls to the little girls, passing religious tradition from one generation to the next.

Info Snippet: Did you know... There are believed to be about 300-400 kachinas that are recognizable to the Hopi.

The Kachina Doll...

The dolls are carved from cottonwood root. The cottonwood is a symbol itself of being able to seek out moisture, especially important to desert farmers! It is light, sturdy, and a great wood for carving. The carver refines the piece of wood more and more. When it's finished, the doll is painted by hand with traditional colors identifiable to a particular Kachina spirit. Hopi Kachina carving is a very big part of their current and past culture and the carvers are an important part of their religious structure.

Painted and dressed to resemble a particular spirit, these dolls were used to educate the children about the spirits in their daily lives and to appease that spirit during spiritual reflection. The younger children are given ti'hu' which is a flat Kachina, very closely resembling an actual Kachina, but not as intricate or fragile.

Info Snippet: Did you know... Only little girls were given kachinas.


Other Native American tribes have their own figurine-carving traditions and are now carving dolls, picking up on the popularity of the Hopi Kachina.

Info Snippet: Did you know... Authentic Kachina dolls are made
only by Hopi artists!

Hopi Kachina dolls generally follow the traditional format of cottonwood and paint. Some Hopi carvers are now adding extra details, flourishes and a polishing step to the process. Many famous Kachina carvers are working on the ti'hu' because it is normally lower in price.

Kachina pricing depends on size, materials and accents used, as well as the popularity of the artist.

Info Snippet: Did you know... These works of art are selling to collectors from anywhere between $150 to $30,000!

Snow Owl page gives descriptions of the various Kachinas, such as Old Man Kachina, Situlili Kachina, Buffalo Maiden Dancer, etc.....

Following are excerpts from Sotheby Auctions of Native American items, specifically Kachinas:

Sotheby's, May 8, 2006... A fine Hopi polychrome wood Kachina doll, 10 ¾ inches high, depicting the Shalako Mana, of highly stylized form, standing on squat legs. Kachinas, the catalogue explains, are "spirit supernaturals, once of this world" who live in an underworld with Hopi ancestors and who are supposed to reappear in the first half of the year when they are personated in dance. The lot has an estimate of $20,000 to $30,000. It sold for $21,600.

Sotheby's, May 8, 2006... Another Hopi polychromed Kachina doll. The 15 ¼-inch-high figure holds a spotted lizard in its mouth and has exaggerated ears. It is attributed to Wilson Tawaquaptewa who was born in 1873 into the Bear Clan of the Hopi village ofOraibi on the Third Mesa in northeastern Arizona. In 1904, Tawauqaptewa became village chief and remained so until his death in the 1960s except, the catalogue notes "for a few interruptions related to political imprisonment or to health problems." He was the leader of the Friendlies who supported cooperation between the Hopi and the United States Government. His dolls, the catalogue continued, "are now valued by collectors and museums for their quirky creativity, the distorted realism and their artistic presence." The lot has an estimate of $20,000 to $30,000. It sold for $21,600.

Artnet Auction Report: Sotheby's American Indian Art
by Gabriel Desai

Energetic bidding for some exceptional lots marked Sotheby's auction of American Indian material on Dec. 4, 1997. The sale totaled $4,366,628 for 368 of 484 lots sold (76 percent by lot), a record for any American Indian auction.

Particularly notable was a splendid selection of Zuni and Hopi kachinas and dolls, dating from the 1890s to 1920, from the collection of Alan Kessler, the Photo-Realist painter who has showed at O.K. Harris gallery in New York. Originally made for children to teach them about the different deities, these works of carved and painted cottonwood were often highly ceremonial. Many of the pieces soared past their presale estimates.

Top lot of this group was the dancing Salako Mana doll, which went for a record $265,000 (est. $85,000-$125,000) to an anonymous telephone bidder. The sheer size and monumental quality of this piece, with its animated posture, elaborate "tableta" headdress and much of it's original paint, singled it out as a star exhibit.

A highly stylized Rio Grande doll depicting the Winter Clown, brightly colored in yellow and blue and with an icicle horn tufted with animal hair on its crown, sold for $80,000 (est. $65,000-$75,000). Such figures were keepers of tradition, using humor to communicate beliefs that were nevertheless deeply felt.

Also notable was a striking figural group of two Hopi Mud Head Clowns, depicted wearing black kilts and sack masks, with one crouched on the shoulders of the other. This unusual pair sold for $31,000 (est. $14,000-$16,000).

If Native American Indian Kachinas are an art form you're interest in for either buying or collecting, become familiar with it. Visit museums to study their various forms, materials, tribal affiliations and designs. Go to art shows that showcase Native American Kachinas. Antique shows are also a good venue - go through the booths of vendors selling these items. If they are passionate about what they have, they will answer your questions. And, of course, inter-tribal powwows are excellent venues to look and ask.

You can also go The Indian Arts and Crafts Association for a listing of registered and certified Native American Artisans.

Above all, any art form being marketed as a genuine Native American Indian Kachinas must legally be just that. The spirit of the law is that any artwork or craft fashioned by a Native American, the artisan must be a member of an Indian Tribe, and their membership has been verified and certified.

These Native American artisans are practicing their art perhaps as a livelihood. And, through their art, they are keeping their culture, history and spirituality alive.

Native American Arts has free e-books covering the subjects of Collecting and Fraudulence that are excellent!

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