At Palms Trading Company, you’ll find many hand-carved kachina dolls from Native American Indian craftsmen from around the Southwest. But kachinas are more than art — they are a part of a rich, spiritual tradition.
What Are Kachinas?
Although many think of the dolls when they hear the word “kachina”, the word is connected to several different meanings:
- Kachina as an ancient religion
- Kachina as spirits
- Kachina as dancers
- Kachina as dolls
Each meaning of kachina is intertwined with the others — the kachina spirits are a part of the kachina religion. Kachina dolls are teaching aids that depict the kachina dancers. The kachina dancers, through masks, costume, ceremony and dance, represent the spirits.
Kachinas as Spirits
According to spiritual tradition, kachina spirits play two parts: spiritual beings and teachers. In the kachina religion, everything (animals, plants, objects, places and things, such as rain clouds) has both a physical side and a spiritual side — these are the kachinas. The kachinas represent the presence of life in all objects of the universe.
The Zuni believe the kachinas live in the Lake of the Dead, which is a mythical lake reached through Listening Spring Lake located at the junction of the Zuni and Little Colorado Rivers. The Hopi believe that the kachinas live on the San Francisco Peaks near Flagstaff, Arizona. The most important of the Hopi kachinas are known as wuya.
Respecting the Kachinas
Kachinas are believed to visit the pueblos from the winter solstice in December to the first ripening of the corn in July, during which time dances and ceremonies take place. These dances and ceremonies honor the kachinas, which will in turn bring rain, create a good harvest, bring fertility, heal and perform other beneficial acts.
During the dances, men impersonate the kachinas in the pueblo plazas and kivas by donning masks, costumes and paints that depict a certain kachina spirit. It is believed that by doing so, they become imbued with the kachina spirit.
Kachinas as Spiritual Works of Art
There are over 400 kachinas among the Hopi and pueblos cultures. Kachina dolls are made and given to children to help them learn the different kachinas and their spiritual significance.
Traditionally, Hopi kachinas are carved from a single piece of cottonwood root. It is the carved mask, costume and paint that allow the kachina to be recognized as the spirit they represent.
Navajo vs. Hopi
Although kachinas are respected throughout the pueblo and Hopi cultures, the Hopi, Zuni and Navajo are the most well-known for kachina carvings. Authentic Hopi kachinas are still often carved out of a solid piece of cottonwood root and are still linked to native spiritual religious traditions, like this Eagle Kachina:
Kachinas carved by Navajo artists are carved out of wood, but generally have additional elements. These can include feathers and articles of clothing that are made from other mediums, such as this Owl Kachina:
You can see these, and other, incredible works of art at Palms Trading Company! And read our blog next month to learn more about kachinas in part two of our series.