I had never heard of kachinas till our family lived on the Hopi Indian Reservation for a year. My husband and I were teachers there. I learned about kachinas from my students and their families and from attending Hopi ceremonies and dances.
Kachinas are spirits who live in the San Francisco Peaks and come to the Hopi villages at different times of the year. These religious beings are really Hopi males dressed up to look like the various kachinas. There are hundreds of different kachina spirits. At some dances I attended the kachinas gave out gifts or danced and at others they acted out plays that taught a lesson.
I was always amazed at how even my grade one students could identify so many of the kachinas and would draw colorful and detailed pictures of the various kachinas. I even kept and framed some of their drawings. I was reminded of the things I had learned about kachinas when I visited the Heard Museum and saw their large collection of kachina dolls. Kachina doll carving is thought to have begun as early as 1300. The dolls were made by Hopi men as gifts for children to help them learn the names and attributes of the various kachinas spirits. I remember that my students thought of some kachinas as friendly but they were scared of others who were sent to mete out punishment to them if they had been bad.
Young children didn’t know that the Hopi kachinas were really their fathers and grandfathers dressed up to look like the spirits. They believed the kachinas were real just like kids believe in Santa Claus. It was only when they reached age eleven or twelve that the boys went through an initiation ceremony in the kiva and were told the truth about the kachinas. A kiva is an underground chamber where sacred ceremonies are held.
Since my husband taught grade six and was the basketball coach for some of the boys who were being initiated he was given the rare privilege of attending a Hopi initiation ceremony in the kiva as some of his students were initiated and found out the kachinas were really the men of the tribe dressed up in costume and paint.
We did buy one kachina carving when we lived on the Hopi Reservation but it was from a beginning carver and unfortunately it has had some feathers broken during our many moves. The best carvers can charge thousands of dollars for their work and I read that one kachina doll sold privately for over $300,000.
One of the guides at the Heard Museum said kachinas used to be carved very simply but in the 1960’s when art collectors began to show interest in them the artists started making them more colorful, often creating the dolls in an action pose. They also began to sign their work.
Senator Barry Goldwater of Arizona had 437 kachina dolls and his collection is on display at the Heard Museum. Kachina dolls are made from the root of the cottonwood tree using various tools like knives, chisels, rasps, mallets and saws.
Often the various body parts are created separately and then attached. Once the carving is finished the pieces are whitewashed and painted and various decorations added. I enjoyed finding out more about kachina dolls at the Heard Museum and remembering all the things I learned about kachinas during our year of living with the Hopi.
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