Tag Archives: Cottonwood

Hope for the Hopi Kachinas


Hi All!  Sorry for the long absence but things have been very busy this year!  We have had our hands full with so many interesting projects, but in this post we’d like to feature a particularly colorful group of objects we’ve been working on since fall.  So begins our two-part spotlight on the six Kachina dolls that came into our studio looking for help.  This post will detail the cultural context of the pieces, and the next part will describe some aspects of the dolls’ treatment.


Kachinas are iconic objects of Southwestern Native American Art.  These Kachinas come from the Hopi Tribe.  They are not objects of worship but rather depict  the many different types of  Kachina spirits.  A Kachina doll, also known as a tihü, is traditionally given to a Hopi Girl at a ceremonial dance.  They function as decorative objects, toys and didactic objects that tell the stories of the Kachina spirits.  In more recent years, native artists have manufactured Kachinas for export.


Kachinas are carved out of the roots of the cottonwood tree. The wood is very soft and easy to carve.  Traditionally, Kachines were carved using knives and other customary tools but today native artists use modern tools such as chisels, Dremel tools, hand and power saws, pocket knives, X-acto blades and wood burning irons.  Kachinas are highly decorated and brightly painted.  Historically feathers, fur, leather, yarn and seashells were used to decorate the dolls.  Our dolls do not have any additions other than carved wooden elements and paint.  In the past, pigments made from natural ochers and minerals would be used.  In more recent years Kachinas, like the ones in our studio, have been painted using acrylics.


Color is a symbolic feature of the Kachina mask.  Six colors and color combinations indicate the direction from which a Kachina originally came to the Hopi village: yellow-north, blue-green- west, red- south, white- east, grey or a combination of the above colors- up and black- down.


The different iconographies of the Kachinas identify them as specific spirits.  An example is the Kachina shown below, which depicts a blue spirit standing on one foot as if mid-dance.  The figure is draped in a white robe with small blue feathers attached to it.  The spirit holds a tray of cornmeal.  The half of the face mask is painted brown and the other half is painted white.  A rainbow symbol splits the two colors.  The tablet above the face depicts cloud and rain symbols.   The color of the form, the tray of cornmeal, the style of the mask and the cloud symbols on the tablet identify this figure as the Tukwünag Kachin-mana or Cumulus Cloud Maiden.  The Cumulus Cloud Maiden appears in Hopi Shalako ceremonies.


To read more about the history of Kachina dolls, the stories behind the different spirits or the Shalako ceremonies please check out the books and article listed below.

Bassman, Theda.  Treasures of the Hopi.  Northland Publishing Company Flagstaff, AZ.  1997.

Colton, Harold S.  Hopi Kachina Dolls: With a Key to Their Identification.  University of New Mexico Press.  Albuquerque, NM. 1987.

Fewkes, J. Walter and Hough, Walter. The Sio Shalako at the First Mesa,  American Anthropologist , New Series, Vol. 19, No. 3 (Jul. – Sep., 1917), pp. 410-415


Written by Senior Blog Editor Allison King


Filed under art conservation, Hopi Kachina