We had a project several years ago that had to do with a large collection of Kachina or Katsina dolls.  In our research we fell in love with these intricately carved gems not only for the craftsmanship but also the history and story behind each one.  The carving is an interpretation of a spirit and it is the story of the family that carved it.

These Kachina totems are the basis of the Hopi religion that ties their people to the land.  In their ceremonial calendar there are six months that these spirits come and concentrate, February through July, and the other six months are for the people to carry out their domestic activities.  The dolls are not just souvenirs.  They are personifications of the Hopi’s sacred spirits and are accurate models of tribesmen in their ceremonial dress.

Kachina doll carvings by Tino, Alexander and Preston Youvella

It is important to note that the Hopi Reservation lies deep within the Navajo Reservation.  They are farming people who reside on and near three mesas in northeastern Arizona with more than 9,000 living within the 1.5 million-acre reservation. There are dolls that are labeled Navajo and are carved by the Navajo Indians.  These makers are simply gifted carvers.  Only a full blooded Hopi Indian can translate the “essence” of the Kachina doll.  Defining a true Hopi tribe member can be a virtual minefield.  What is known is that a child born of a Hopi woman is definitely Hopi regardless of who the father might be.  A child born of a Hopi man and non-Hopi mother is considered half-Hopi with no clan.  The clan is the center of the Hopi culture, so the child is out of luck to be included in its art production.  However, there have been a few exceptions where the tribe can vote to adopt into the religion a non-Hopi or half-Hopi person, and this is accepted.

Henry Shelton (born 1929). Kachina Doll, 1960-1970 . Brooklyn Museum, Gift of Edith and Hershel Samuels, 2010.6.10.

When starting to collect, it is important for the novice to do the research.  For instance, the maker should be part of the Indian Arts and Crafts Association and the store which have a reputation for selling credible pieces.  Be familiar with typical surnames like Charlie, Ben, Fred and Jim.  There are no Browns, Smiths or Jones. 

Navajo carvers like carving large, meaning over 25” high.  Real Hopi dolls are only made of naturally dried cottonwood root.  The entire piece is carved out the wood and is usually one solid, continuous piece.  Early pieces are far simpler due to the nature of the tools at the time. 
Today’s Hopi makers can use sophisticated electric carving tools that give even more character to the doll.  There is some discussion, however, between tribal members as to how authentic the contemporary pieces are. Remember to identify the feathers that decorate the piece, because if you purchase a piece made with endangered bird feathers, it is against the law for you to resell it.

The Heard Museum in Phoenix has the largest collection of museum-quality pieces.  The museum has the entire collection of former Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater, all 437 of them, as well as pieces from the Fred Harvey Fine Arts Collection.