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The Hopi word kachina means three things (1) supernatural beings (2) male dancers that represent these supernatural beings or (3) painted wooden dolls which represent these dancers. The importance of the kachina in religious life of Pueblo people is evident by the numerous depictions of kachinas on their masks, on pottery, as well as the abundance of kachina dolls.
Taken from the Hopi Indian word meaning supernatural, a kachina is the essence or spirit of a particular thing. The kachina is an ancient concept, but kachina dolls have only been made since the late 1800s. Kachina dolls produced by the Pueblo Indians, particularly the Hopis and Zunis, were designed for use in religious education. These dolls are not idols, and are not worshipped and prayers are not said to them. To ensure that the children were able to identify the most important spiritual powers, their friends and relatives carved small replicas of the kachina spirits as gifts. These first toys were hung over the child's cradle to bring good health.
For centuries authentic kachinas were carved by men out of dried pieces of cottonwood, a soft wood that's easy to carve and whittle. They used a knife and rasp to form the figure and a small piece of sandstone to smooth it. The ears, noses, horns, and headpieces were carved separately and then attached to the simply carved base. The whole doll was coated with kaolin, which is a white clay, and was later painted in bright colors. Feathers, furs, animal skins, yarns, beads, gourds, jewelry, and other objects were then added. In the 19th century Zuni kachinas were often dressed in real leather and cloth, while Hopi kachinas had their clothing carved out of wood. Kachinas that are naked or dressed in only a loincloth ususally predate 1900.
Many people are surprised to learn that a Hopi can have several hundred kachina dolls and question the need for so many. The Hopi point out that they don't understand why Roman Catholics have the need for 30,000 saints. This comparison is appropriate, for the functions of the saints and the kachinas are similar in their respective religions. Each serves as a go-between for mortals and their more important dieties. People unfamilar with Southwestern art often find the kachina doll grotesque in appearance. These people need to remember that the Hopi's first view of the crucifix may evoke the same reaction.
Today most of the older kachinas are in museums or private collections. Most kachinas produced today are for sale and not for Pueblo children. Even the Navajo began making kachinas for sale to tourists in 1985. Because of the technical expertise of the carvers, modern kachina dolls are usually elaborately carved. Newer dolls have dynamic carved shapes and exaggerated ears, snouts, or beaks.
It is not necessary for beginning collectors to buy mass produced dolls instead of handmade crafts. It is easy to buy modern kachinas from their Native American craftsmen, especially in New Mexico and Arizona. There are important differences between a handmade and a mass produced kachina. If a small kachina does not have a base attached to its legs, it could have been mass produced on a lathe. Further evidence of mass production is a small hole on the bottom of the doll. Kachinas made of clay, instead of cottonwood, are also made in large quanitites. Also, if the kachina feels unusually light, it may have a styrofoam,and not a cottonwood,base.
Many kachina dolls represent well defined functions, such as hunters, warriors, or even birds. One group, the clowns, represent the men who perform antics for the spectators at kachina dances to lighten up the solemnity of the event. Because there are so many kachinas available, kachina doll collectors often specialize in specific types. Studying the fascinating background attributed to a particular doll adds to the enjoyment of the collection. A display of kachinas is also an excellent reminder of the fine heritage of the Pueblo people.