Pueblo Kachina Dolls

November 2, 2015

The Kachinas are powerful supernatural beings in the spiritual life of the Native American Hopi and Zuni Pueblo peoples. Kachina wooden dolls are given to children, not as playthings but as treasured objects to help them identify the many different kachinas. (Shown here are Hopi dolls from the author’s collection, made by Indian craftmen.) Originally the dolls were flat, simple effigies, but “Once the kachina doll became available for sale, first as a curio and later as a work of art, the figures began to evolve into more highly articulated and detailed sculptural pieces.” (Christine Mather, Native American Arts, Traditions, and Celebrations, New York: Clarkson Potter, 1990, pp. 32–39, 34. See also Andrew Hunter Whiteford and Herbert S. Zim, North American Indian Arts, New York: Golden Press, 1970, 101.)

The kachinas are believed to live part of the year in their own domain, the World Below, but at the winter solstice they travel from their homes to the world of people, inhabiting the bodies of men and remaining there until the Niman Kachina festival held in July.

In their bodily manifestations, kachinas bring needed rain, and provide gifts and entertainment for the Indian people. Because they have life-or-death power, they are honored in numerous ceremonies, led by masked, costumed dancers impersonating kachinas (and resembling the dolls). These dancers, as well as tribal members generally, believe they embody the spirits of kachinas.

As monsters or bogeyman, men dressed in scary masks and dark robes annually carry out a chastisement of the children. This is something of a reversal of the Halloween custom of “trick or treat.” That is, the adult kachina monsters go house to house demanding food from the children whom they threaten to eat if they fail to comply. The entities are appeased of course, but frightened children are left behind.

Traditionally, at about the age of eight Hopi children were initiated into kachina cults during a ceremony in February, held in a kiva, an underground place of council and worship accessed by a ladder leading down into it. A Kachina Chief would tell a story of how the Hopis emerged from the World Below. Next each child was led in turn by his or her sponsor and stood on a sand painting featuring kachina whippers, whose impersonators then gave the child four lashes. After gifts of sacred feathers and cornmeal, the children went home to a feast. The following morning, after daybreak prayer to the sun, the children returned to the kiva where they were let in on the secret that the kachinas were actually inhabiting the bodies of ordinary men. They were sworn never to reveal this, and then the unmasked kachinas danced for them.

The boys might one day become kachina impersonators themselves, as in Hopi society religious/ceremonial life was dominated by men, while women ruled the households. In the clan households a man’s true home was the house of his mother, not his wife’s, and he owed greater responsibility to his sister’s child than his own, because both he and his sister’s child belonged to the same clan. All sought the favor of the kachina spirits in the World Below; if there was sufficient rain for the crops, they believed the kachinas were pleased. (See James A. Maxwell, ed., America’s Fascinating Indian Heritage, Pleasantville, NY: Reader’s Digest, 1978, pp. 222–230.)

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