Some years ago, the Hopi Tribal Council decided that the dolls that were called Kachinas should be given their traditional Hopi name of Katsinas.
What I have found is that most carvers still use the term Kachina, and we often do as well. There is no disrespect intended and we try to use whatever the carver prefers. In this writing I will probably go back and forth.
I don’t know how old Chester Poleyestewa is, but he’s been making Katsina (Kachina) dolls longer that I’ve been around.
The Katsina Dolls represent the actual Katsinas, or spiritual beings, who live in the San Francisco Peaks. The Kachina Dancers are part of the male Kiva Societies that have learned the dances, which were originally performed by the Spiritual Beings. If the dances are done in exactly the same way and the Katsina’s masks and dress are correct, the Dancers bring the same blessings to the people that the original Katsinas did.
So, why are there dolls? It comes from the fact that, although Hopi is a matrilineal society, the women are not allowed to be part of the Kiva Societies and are not allowed to participate in the dances. Any females in the dances are males, dressed to represent the female Katsinas.
In order to teach the young girls of the tribe the religion, the uncles and fathers of the girls carve cottonwood root likenesses of the dancers and instruct the girls about what the dancers represent. These dolls were originally very simple with the mask being the most important part. They were tied on a string and hung on the wall, where they could always be seen.
As collectors began to buy them, Kachina carvers began making pieces aimed directly at that trade. Famous Kachina collectors include John Wayne and Barry Goldwater. Kachinas became more and more elaborate. They were made to stand on flat surfaces, decorated with feathers and brightly colored. Later, the feathers disappeared from carvings because of restrictions on the use of migratory bird feathers. Carvers began to carve the feathers and the art form took another leap forward.
Through it all, Chester Poleyestewa, from Third Mesa and the village of Hoteville, has carved dolls that are more like you would have found at the end of the last century. He uses paints made from roots, berries, minerals and ash. He uses legal feathers and leather to finish the dolls. The masks are exact and the action in the dolls is simple, slightly bent legs, arms bent at the elbow. They are wonderful works or art and so well done they could have been used by an elder 100 years ago to teach a young girl about that particular Katsina.
And my favorite part, not being a Hopi, is that they make me smile and feel good. His dolls are like having a daily blessing at the house and they remind me of Chester himself. He always has a happy smile, a quick laugh and a desire to share his knowledge.
When Chester calls and says he has a doll or two for us, everyone in the gallery waits for him expectantly. His nephew usually drives him up to Durango and on his road trips. He shows his work at many fine galleries and museums around the country and we are proud to have a large selection of them at all times. Take a look and see if these wonderful, authentic Hopi Kachinas might not find a special place in your home!
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