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The Original Katsina Dolls

November 2006, by Chester Poleyetsewa

The katsina doll was and is made for native use by Hopi fathers and uncles to give to their daughters or nieces; primarily the doll is hung on the wall or from the rafters of the house so that it may be seen at all times. The purpose is to teach the child the mask, the outfit and body painting of Katsinas. Therefore, the doll as to be as perfect as possible, and certainly so in mask features. This may explain in part why the earlier dolls were accurate and in detailed outline, often with mere suggestions of arms and legs.

The term "Katsina" refers primarily to the masked dancer in the pueblo village, or to the spirits which the dancer impersonates. Among the pueblo these spirits are intermediaries between man and the gods; they are spirits of the dead, if not the dead, themselves. They are the spirits which bring water or the clouds from which rain comes. Another tribe pictures the Katsinas as gathering above the clouds and tipping their great jars so that water falls upon the earth below. All Hopi boys are introduced to the katsinas at the Powamu Ceremony, and after they're initiated they may perform in the katsina dances.

Indeed, it is difficult to define "Katsina." Although the complex concept and the dancers have to do with religion of the puebloans, the dolls are not religious objects in the same sense. They are not idols. The Hopis do not worship katsina dolls. Puebloan groups believe that Katsina live under lakes (Zuni), or rivers, or on mountain tops (Hopi). The Hopi Katsinas live on the San Francisco Peaks of Northern Arizona or on other peaks for six months of the year, then they live in the villages of this tribe for the remainder of 

the year. They appear in dances from the time of their arrival at the end of an initiation ceremony (the Powamu) in late February, to their return to the mountains at the Niman Ceremony, or "Home Dance" in July. During their period of residence within the villages, they perform at various times in dance groups. The dancers are, of course, Hopi men wearing masks and impersonating the spirits.

The materials used are cottonwood roots, not branches. Natural earth pigments and some commercial paints and legal feathers are also used. Katsina carvers once used feathers, furs and leather to decorate their carvings. In 1972 the Migratory Bird Law was passed by Congress. This law protected endangered fowl such as eagles, owls, hawks and certain small birds such as sparrows and woodpeckers. From that point, carvers began to do away with using feathers, fur and leather.

Puebloan groups believe the katsinas live under lakes (Zuni), or rivers or on mountain tops (Hopi). The Hopi katsinas live on the San Francisco Peaks of northern Arizona or on other peaks for six months of the year, then they live in the villages of the tribe for the remainder of the year. They appear in dances from the time of their arrival at the end of an initiation ceremony (the Powamu) in late February, to their return to the mountains at the Niman Ceremony, or "Home Dance," in July. During their period of residence within the villages they perform at various times in dance groups. The dancers are, of course, Hopi men wearing masks and impersonating the spirits.