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Rose Mary
By Rosemary McKittrick
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Hopi; depicting young woman in traditional attire; attached tags reads “Hopi Doll, Tom Pavatea; 12 ¾ inches high; sold for $12,000. Photo courtesy of Bonhams & Butterfields.
The kiva has been at the heart of Hopi tradition for more than 1,000 years. Like churches, these round ceremonial chambers are holy sites.

The Hopis believe life began in the kivas. The first humans, they say, left their dark home in the earth’s interior and climbed upward toward the light and the present world through a hole in the floor of the kiva. They also believe they will return to the underworld when they die.

The kachinas were the spiritual beings who taught the Hopis how to live on earth after their emergence. The kachina dolls are religious icons. They represent the spirit essence of everything in the real world. In a way they’re like statues of saints.

In Hopi, the word Kachina (Katsina or Qatsina) means "life bringer". Among the Pueblos Indian tribes like the Zuni and Hopi, the kachina, or rain deity, is a supernatural being responsible for the tribe’s very survival. Without its help, the rivers won’t flow and the crops don’t grow.

Kachina dolls are carved from cottonwood root and painted to represent figures from Hopi mythology. Genuine kachina dolls are made by only a small number of Hopi carvers who have dedicated their lives to the art--it takes years of practice and religious study to master.

It’s an ancient tradition. As far back as the 1500s, the Spanish wrote about seeing bizarre images of the devil, most likely kachina dolls, hanging in pueblo homes.

Older style kachinas are usually adorned with feathers, fur, turquoise, etc. Artists bring them to life by capturing them in action, the more action, the better.

The first kachina doll was collected from the Hopi in 1857 by Dr. Palmer, a United States Army surgeon. He presented it to the National Museum.

Military men and government agents were fascinated by the dolls from the beginning. Against their better judgment, the Hopi sold them. From that time onward the demand increased.

It’s impossible to have a complete collection of all the kachinas made because the art form is continually changing. The carvers who make them also do so out of their own perception of what the kachina looks like.

Some carvers have better memories than others. So they vary from tribe to tribe. Kachina makers are often both religious and commercial carvers. The dolls suit both purposes. Carvers usually have a limited repertoire of dolls they create. They carve what they’ve learned.

There are also plenty of fake kachina dolls for sale in the Southwest. Most probably made by non-Indians. Their materials give them away. They’re often simplified kachina forms carved in balsa wood or pine.

Good carving makes for good kachinas. The body proportions should be correct. The feet and hands should be the proper size. The surface should be smooth. Details need to be finished. The better the details, the finer the doll.

The painting is also important on a kachina. The lines and color must be clear-cut. The clothing and gear the doll wears should be there.

On June 9, Bonhams & Butterfields featured a selection of kachina dolls in its Native American and Pre-Columbian Art auction. Here are some current values.


Zuni; depicting Shalako; carved and painted feathers and horns; 20 ¾ inches high; $9,000.

Zuni; depicting Upo’yona; wearing pine ruff; painted cotton kilt; 15 inches high; $10,200.

Hopi; depicting Wilson Tawaquoptewa; typical animal style; paw prints on cheeks; 19 ¼ inches high; $10,800.

Hopi; depicting young woman in traditional attire; attached tags reads “Hopi Doll, Tom Pavatea; 12 ¾ inches high; $12,000.

Zuni; depicting Shalako; feather ruff and horsehair tresses;15 ½ inches high; $13,200.

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