Dolls are a rite of passage for little girls, many of whom project their personalities and aspirations onto their first Malibu Barbies or American Girls. In the Hopi culture, dolls are also given to girls as they grow up, but instead of serving an emotional purpose, the katsina dolls the girls receive are thought to represent spirits that will teach and guide the child into adulthood. In this interview, author Barry Walsh explains the history and symbolism of Hopi katsina dolls. Walsh names his favorite carvers, and explains why the dolls are no longer called “kachina” in English. He can be reached via Buffalo Barry’s.
Katsinas are representations of spirit beings, so they should convey a certain amount of spirituality. The old ones generally do that, and some contemporary ones do as well. I look for some sort of artistic oomph and some sort of spiritual presence. And I’m a sucker for detail. I like it when a carver adds accoutrements such as a rattle, rasp, bow and arrow, or quiver, or if he takes time on the earrings or a bracelet, or if he carves the sash in an interesting way. I gravitate toward unusual details like that.
My all-time favorite katsina carver is Wilson Tawaquaptewa, whom I’ve written a couple of articles about. Other antique carvers that are favorites of mine include Jimmie Kewanwytewa, known as Jimmie K., and Jimmy Kootshongsie, better known as Jimmy Koots. I’m also very fond of White Bear Fredericks and Otto Pentewa.
In terms of contemporary carvers, I’m a big fan of Manfred Susunkewa. He started the whole traditional-style carving movement back in the 1970s. He felt that while the new dolls were moving in fancy, anatomically correct directions, their spirit feeling was being lost. So he went back to making katsinas the way they were made in the 19th century. He works with simple tools and uses hand-ground mineral and vegetable pigments.
Manfred started the traditional trend in the ’70s, while Joseph Day and his Hopi wife, Janice, out in the Hopi reservation in Arizona, fostered it. During the late ’80s, the style really took off. Today there are at least 50 Hopi carvers working in the traditional style. And that could be a low estimate. Some of the younger carvers who work in that style are Darance Chimerica, Ed Seechoma, Cordell Naseyoma, Vernon Mansfield, and Clark Tenakhongva, to name a few.
One of the effects of this movement has been to do away with the word “kachina,” which was really an Anglicization of katsina—there’s no “ch” sound in the Hopi language. As a result of Indian advocacy and empowerment, the Hopi have created their own dictionary, and they’ve made corrections to Hopi orthography.
Collectors Weekly: Are the Hopi the only Native people who make katsina dolls?
Walsh: No. The Zuni make them, too, but the Hopi are much more prolific. The Zuni tend to frown on selling them to the general public. There are a few other pueblo tribes who make them, like Acoma or Laguna, but those are quite rare and tend to be very simple in their design. For example, the Rio Grande pueblo carvings are sometimes just little, flat boards with a bit of painting on them.
Prototypes of katsina dolls have been found in Anasazi caves and dated to 1200 or 1300, but the oldest katsina carvings that have been collected only date to about the 1870s. The oldest dolls I own are from the 1890s.
Collectors Weekly: How were the dolls used?
Walsh: The katsina spirits are central to Hopi religion and are said to look over the Hopi. Hopi dancers impersonate those spirits and, in turn, the katsina dolls are the representations of the dancers. So the dolls represent the dancers, and the dancers embody the spirits.
All Hopi infants receive the grandmother katsina known as Hahai-i Wuhti. Girls continue to receive katsinas up until early adolescence. They’re given the dolls at katsina dances by the dancers themselves. I’m not sure, but I think they receive two or three a year.
They’re meant to be a prayer or gift from the katsina spirits, but they’re also educational, teaching children about a particular katsina, which they’ve probably seen at various dances and Kiva ceremonies. In typical Hopi fashion, things tend to be laden with multiple meanings. It’s not as linear as the Anglo or Western thought process.
I don’t know if a particular girl is given a particular katsina doll to send her some sort of message or for its symbolism. How the katsina spirits decide to give girls this or that katsina doll would not be the kind of information I would ever be privy to.
You occasionally run into carvings by women—until just a few years ago that would have been unheard of. But carvers are still, I would estimate, 98 percent male.
The katsina religion is really the province of males, though Hopi society is a matriarchy. The women own the land and children of a marriage belong to the mother’s clan, but the aspect of their religion that involves the katsina spirits is a male activity. I would think the reason why men carve katsinas is because they’re the ones who embody the katsina spirits.
Collectors Weekly: Do katsinas always represent an animal?
Walsh: Not always. They are often carved in the forms of animals, from squirrels and bears to antelope and sheep, but they also represent spirits in such things as clouds and snow, insects and minerals, corn plants swaying in the wind, gods, and even death.
One of the things you learn when you go to Hopi is not to ask a lot of pesky questions about their religion.
There are also katsinas that represent other Indian tribes, women, and chiefs. Very complex categories comprise the pantheon of katsina. As some katsinas fall into disuse, new ones are introduced. A typical estimate for the number of katsina spirits is somewhere in the vicinity of 300 to 500.
Each doll has a name. There’s the Hopi name and an English name, but the authentic name is the Hopi name. For example, if it’s a squirrel katsina, you get the Hopi name for squirrel, or if it’s a broad-face or an ogre or a chief, it has the Hopi name for that.
Most of them also have some depiction of their dancer’s costume. Often, it’s a painted design on the carving that’s meant to represent some of the accoutrements or aspects of the costume worn by the dancer. Painted details could include a garment, a fox tail on the back, or arm bands.
A few katsinas carry bow and arrows. Those are usually hunter katsinas. The bumblebee katsina carries a bow and arrow because it represents his sting. Many dolls carry a rattle, because that’s what most katsina dancers carry.
Collectors Weekly: How long does it take to carve a typical katsina?
Walsh: Well, you can make some of them in a day, but there are incredibly elaborate contemporary ones that look like an anatomically correct human being. Those can take a couple of months and require sophisticated power tools. Some of those fine-art dolls can sell for $12,000 each if they are the work of a famous carver. The traditional-style and old antique dolls, though, were typically made in a day or two because their forms were simple.
The Hopi katsinas are one-of-a-kinds ones, but the Navajo, who don’t believe in katsina spirits, sometimes churn them out assembly-line style. In fact, I once wrote an article about an assembly line that I uncovered in New Mexico, where different people made different parts of the katsina. Those were not legitimate katsinas. They shouldn’t even have the word katsina associated with them. Any Hopi katsina is a one-of-a-kind hand-made item.
There are three steps to making a katsina doll—one is carving it, the second is painting it, and the third is applying the feathers. The feathers sometimes are underestimated in terms of their importance, but they are a part of the whole appearance. Some dolls don’t have many feathers, but others are quite elaborate.
Feathers, by the way, are just part and parcel of the appearance of some of the dolls. In the past, many dolls had eagle feathers on them, but now that’s illegal. The eagle is important in Hopi religious life in ways that I don’t understand and am not privy to as an outsider.
One of the things you learn when you go to Hopi over the years is not to ask a lot of pesky questions because it’s their private religion. They’ve been researched and gawked at and prodded and poked to death. So what I’ve picked up is all from books or just observation when I’m out there. I don’t know many of the details about religious ceremonies and things like that, nor should I.
If you’ve ever been to Hopiland in the summertime towards the end of the katsina season, you’ll see golden eagles tethered to the rooftops. The Hopi people keep them, and eventually sacrifice them, for their feathers. Eagles have a lot of important ceremonial purposes going back hundreds of years, and the Hopi have special permits from the federal government to use eagle feathers for religious purposes. These days, pigeon or turkey feathers are used on katsina carvings in order to make them legal for sale.
Many Hopi people—the majority perhaps—make their living as artisans, and they carve the dolls the same way for sale as they do for ceremonial purposes when they’re given to the girls. There’s a relatively strong market, although it’s not very strong right now, for katsina dolls because people are often captivated by their colors. They also convey a certain spirit-being connotation, and because of that, people are attracted to them.
Collectors Weekly: How do you collect your katsinas?
Walsh: I collect in a lot of different ways, through auctions, websites, and shows. Because people know I’m a katsina specialist, it would be a rare week that someone doesn’t send me pictures of a katsina doll they want me to identify or give them an informal appraisal. So, sometimes I buy because people contact me out of the blue.
You know who made a doll by its style. It’s like recognizing the Stones or Dave Matthews or Pink—you’re familiar with their sound.
I go to the reservation once or twice a year, which is a long trip for me. I love to go to the reservation, and I buy there directly from carvers that I know. Some carvers are pretty hip these days. They’re in touch with me by email, showing me what they have available. I’ll order from them online.
Going out to Hopi for this sort of material is not new. In the 1880s and ’90s, anthropologists and ethnologists started visiting Hopi to acquiring all kinds of pieces for the Peabody Museum at Harvard, the Field Museum in Chicago, the University of Pennsylvania, and the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. The Smithsonian has a great collection, as does the Heye Center, which is now part of the Smithsonian.
In the ’20s and ’30s, ordinary citizens began touring the Southwest because of the railroad. Fred Harvey and other people promoted trips to this beautiful and unique area. The tourists started buying katsina dolls, which expanded the market beyond academia to the general collector.
Collectors Weekly: How has tourism affected the production of katsinas?
Walsh: In the ’20s and ’30s, it increased production. Beginning in the 1940s, and continuing up through the fine-art action dolls of today, katsinas often had rattles and other accoutrements because that’s what the market was demanding. In the 1960s and ’70s, though, Anglo collectors started asking for dolls to be on bases so they could put them on a shelf when they got home, so it also affected how the dolls were presented. Tourists also influenced the market by asking for ever-more-precise and anatomically correct dolls.
In the 1970s, a carver named Alvin James Makya took this idea of anatomically correct dolls and really developed it. By the early ’80s, artists were using high-speed tools like Dremels, along with high-quality stains and oil paints. They became some of the master wood carvers and painters in the world. These new kinds of katsinas are not my favorites, but I admit that some of these artists are amazing. Their use of shading and their extremely detailed carvings, right down to the striations in a single feather, can be quite remarkable.
So I do have respect for them, and I have an appreciation for the artistry. Some of their carvings have a spiritual feeling to them, some don’t. But I have to say that some of them look kind of silly, and that’s in my opinion as an Anglo collector, not as an insider.
As with Navajo rugs and jewelry or Zuni jewelry and pottery, collectors have always had a major impact on Indian art, and it continues today. The discriminating collector tries to figure out which pieces still have the stamp of authenticity and aren’t just sell-out products catering to demand.
The Navajo katsina doll would be an example of an inauthentic object because it isn’t something the Navajo believe in. They just make it for sale. The Hopi continue to believe in the katsina spirits and participate in the katsina ceremonies. That comes through when you look at a Hopi-made doll. In some cases, it has a certain amount of soul. Material made by other tribes can be just a knockoff made for tourist sale; these have no spirit whatsoever. Many are just plain tacky.
Collectors Weekly: Did the katsina dolls made for tourists have an impact on the ceremonial ones?
Walsh: The traditional dolls are essentially identical to the ones given out to children at dances today. Sure, there’s been some change over time in terms of paints and tools. Carvers might use an X-Acto knife as opposed to a simple knife or rasp that they used 80 years ago. And sometimes people make dolls for family purposes with acrylic paints that didn’t exist in the ’20s or ’30s. But most of the dolls given out to children still have a very simple, traditional form.
It would be extremely rare to see an anatomically correct fine-art doll given to a child at a katsina dance. Or, at least, I’ve never seen it happen. Hopi carvings, particularly those in the traditional style, still represent what the antique dolls represented in the 1890s to the 1930s.
The traditional dolls are basically simple cylinders. They are often in what’s called the bellyache position, which means the hands are placed on the stomach. They’re meant to hang from a rafter or from the wall. Often they don’t even stand up.
So they have some amount of detail but nothing like the fine-art dolls, which have things like wrinkles on the knees, precisely carved fingernails, and each hair on the head incised with a Dremel tool or an X-Acto knife. They’re very, very different dolls.
What’s really important is the face, which is what tells you which katsina spirit the doll is supposed to represent. The traditional-style dolls also have some basic representation of a kilt or manta, as it’s called, which is sort of a robe or drape. The carver will also create the sash and belt that’s tied around the katsina.
But it’s the detail in the face that matters most. A great resource is Harold Colton’s book, which features drawings of 266 different faces of dolls made in the late ’40s. That helps collectors differentiate between dolls that have tabletas or wood slats on their heads and those with elaborate headdresses. Today it’s even more complicated because there are 300 to 500 different faces.
Color also plays a big role. There are colors that represent the six directions and colors that represent rain or snow. Some of the subtle differences regarding colors, frankly, I don’t even know about. I think one of the things about katsina dolls that’s so appealing is they are often painted with primary colors. That’s certainly one of the things that I was drawn to early on.
Some katsinas are ogres who are designed to scare children and get them to shape up and act like good Hopi children—if they don’t, they’ll be eaten. Here, too, the colors have significance. There’s a white ogre and a black ogre, a blue ahote and a black ahote, a yellow kokoli and a blue kokoli. A lot of katsinas are distinguished only by their color.
Collectors Weekly: Are katsinas always made out of wood?
Walsh: Yes, cottonwood root. If they’re not, they’re pretty suspect. The Zuni make them out of pine sometimes, but the Hopi katsinas are always supposed to be made out of cottonwood root.
I’ve heard and read that the Hopi selected cottonwood root because the trees are known to occupy riverbeds—in other words, they are water-seeking trees. The Hopi are always seeking water because they live in such an incredibly arid area, with only 9 to 12 inches of rain a year.
Collectors Weekly: What are some of the other characteristics of katsina dolls?
Walsh: Anglos give the various periods when the dolls were made names, but the Hopi wouldn’t. The earliest katsinas are the puch’tihu or cradle katsinas, which are simple, flat boards with no legs or hands. In terms of periods or classifications, there are the early traditional, late traditional, early action figures, late action figures, fine art, contemporary figures, and sculptures.
The early traditional and the later traditional artists started to carve the hands away from the body, and the feet became more pronounced. The sculptures don’t have hands or feet per se—they’re integrated within the central block of wood. I’m not a big fan of those myself, but some people love them. I find them a little too abstract.
Then there’s the issue of signature. Many carvers these days sign their dolls. They don’t stamp them, but they might paint their name on them. Some carvers identify themselves with a trademark. For example, Manfred Susunkewa puts a spider on his katsinas because he’s a member of the Spider clan. Jimmie Kewanwytewa started signing his dolls “JK” in the late ’40s. He only signed about 40 percent of his dolls, but he was the first to do it.
Generally the ceremonial dolls given to children would not be signed because they’re from the Katsina spirits and not from a human carver.
Finally, some people choose to collect from all eras in order to have a historically representative collection. That’s what I do because I’m a katsina doll historian, of sorts. More commonly, people seem to be drawn to a particular era and will stick with that.
Collectors Weekly: If a doll is not signed by an artist, how do you determine who made it?
Walsh: That’s a good question. None of my favorite carvers that I mentioned earlier signed their dolls. The way you know a doll is their work is by their distinctive style. It’s kind of like listening to the radio and you recognize the Rolling Stones or Dave Matthews or Pink or whoever without have the announcer say whose music it is. You’ve figured it out because you are familiar with their sound.
In fact, one of the criteria that I have for a superior katsina carver is whether the work is distinctive. Do I need to look at the bottom of it to see who did it, or can I look at it and know immediately who did it because they bring their own unique style to a carving?
My favorite carvers are all like that. No one has to tell you who did it. You look at it and you say, “That’s a Clark doll, that’s a Manfred doll, that’s a Wilson Tawaquaptewa doll,” because they were distinctive artists. Their personality came through, which is, for me, one of the most interesting things.
Collectors Weekly: What makes a katsina doll highly sought after?
Walsh: Age, condition, unique artistry, special artistic skill, and rarity of the figure.
Some katsinas are carved very infrequently—I would think that they represent dancers who appear infrequently. Many collectors like to have something unusual, so when they come upon an older katsina or even a contemporary katsina of a figure that’s rarely seen, they may snap that up.
The reason why one dancer may only appear infrequently is an internal religious secret that I’m not privy to. Some katsinas appear a number of times each year. Some only appear during their particular ceremony and that will be their time to appear during the year.
Some of the chief katsinas are also fairly rare, such as major religious figures like the ahula. Other figures are rare because they’re amalgams that you just don’t see very often. For example, I had a ho-ote once who looked like a regular ho-ote, which is sort of a star katsina, except he had a mudhead head. On this mudhead’s head were ho-ote markings. It’s the only time I’ve ever seen one of those.
Other people like particular dolls because they have a certain beauty to them, or because they’re classics. Take the Hemis katsina: It has a large tableta and is known to be the last dancer of the katsina cycle year. Many people collect it because it’s just such a beautiful figure. So some dolls are very popular because of their aesthetic appeal as well as their religious significance. It’s not always a matter of uniqueness or rarity.
The most sought-after traditional carvers are probably Manfred Susunkewa, Walter Howato (he’s deceased), Ed Seechoma, Cordell Naseyoma, Darance Chimerica, and Ferris “Spike” Satala. On the contemporary side, there are famous people like Cecil Calnimptewa, Bo Lomahquahu, and Arthur Holmes Jr. and Sr. The Honyouti brothers are some of the prominent contemporary fine-art carvers preferred by collectors because of their exquisite, extremely detailed wood-carving skills.
In the antique category, that’s a whole different story, but I mentioned my favorite carvers from the antique realm: Wilson Tawaquaptewa, Jimmie K, and Jimmy Koots.
The Navajo katsina doll would be an example of an inauthentic object because it isn’t something the Navajo believe in. They just make it for sale.
Another area people will focus on is the scene carving. Once in a while, someone will do something with three or four katsinas appearing in a single motif, such as one Jimmy Koots did of some clowns taunting an owl. That’s the only one I ever had like that, and it’s probably the only one ever done like that. That would be a perfect example of a carving by a charismatic, important carver that’s also unique.
Most carvers don’t make scenes for the simple reason that when you put three or four figures into a scene, it takes a lot more time. As a result, I don’t come across them very often. I only have one other that’s not on my website, and that’s because I own it. Coincidentally, it’s also by Koots. It’s a small thing, about 4 inches tall, with five katsinas in formation. Other than that, I’ve had maybe five of them in my whole career. I used to have a Zuni one on my website, with a mudhead figure and a little bit of an altar background with a pointed directional device hanging above his head. I’ve had only three of those in 25 years.
Collectors Weekly: What advice would you have for someone who’s thinking of starting a katsina doll collection?
Walsh: I think the best advice is to read about katsina dolls first. I recommend “The Complete Guide to Collecting Hopi Kachina Dolls” by Barton Wright, “Following the Sun and Moon” by Alph Secakuku, and Jonathan Day’s “Traditional Hopi Kachinas.” If you start to look at a lot of objects, you’ll eventually to get a sense of whether they’re authentic or whether they’re the cheap knockoffs. Make sure it’s Hopi or Zuni. There are fakes out there and there are many Navajo knockoffs. Go for quality and authenticity, not for price. If you go for cheap, you’ll probably get crap.
Buy what you can live with, what you like looking at. It should speak to you and be aesthetically appealing. Even though I’m a dealer, I don’t ever buy a katsina I don’t like because I might live with it for a week or I might live with it for 10 years if it’s in my inventory. So I only buy things I like. I’m surrounded by these spirit beings and I like looking at them every day.
Collectors Weekly: Thank you, Barry, for speaking with us today about katsinas.
(All images in this article courtesy of Barry Walsh of Buffalo Barry’s)