Chronicles in cottonwood

Part art, part religious icon, katsina dolls offer a glimpse into Hopi culture
Nora Burba Trulsson

It's a little carving, not more than 8 inches tall. The Crow Mother wears a turquoise-painted headdress adorned with black feathers. In her arms, there's a very small basket of exquisitely carved, painted corn. She's asking for the planting season to start properly.

"Katsina dolls are books in wood," says Bruce McGee, describing the highly collectible art form he sells as director of the Heard Museum Shop and Bookstore in downtown Phoenix. "Every piece tells a story and teaches a message."

The dolls (commonly referred to as kachina dolls) represent benevolent spirits that play a large role in the culture of the Hopi, who live in northeastern Arizona. The Hopi believe katsinas--there are hundreds of them--come down from the spiritual world to participate in growth and fertility ceremonies that start with the winter solstice and end in midsummer, when the success of the harvest has been established.

The Hopi began making the dolls, or tithu, centuries ago. Traditionally carved by men from cottonwood roots, they are given to girls as ceremonial gifts. When tourists began expressing interest in the figures during the early 20th century, carvers also began making dolls for sale.

 

Contemporary carvers strive for great detail. Expert artists often make a doll out of one piece of cottonwood root, including fragile appendages such as rattles or sashes. Carving styles have evolved over the decades. Early-20th-century dolls had straight legs, but by the 1960s, it was common to carve figures in "action" poses, with limbs extended or bent.

At the Heard Museum, katsina doll prices range from about $15 for a flat carving, such as an infant girl might receive, to serious money--a carving that incorporated three figures recently sold for $39,000. With this kind of popularity, katsina dolls have inevitably been exploited by mass-marketers, who make cheap reproductions. Even worse, katsina images--as sacred to the Hopi as images of Jesus or Buddha are to other religions--are used as commercial logos for everything from banks to pest-control companies.

Authentic katsina dolls are more than art--they're tangible connections to an ancient culture. The details in each tell stories well worth pondering.

The Heard Museum collection boasts 1,200 antique katsina dolls. The museum shop sells the works of more than 100 contemporary carvers. 9:30-5 daily, closed December 25 and January 1; $7. 2301 N. Central Ave., Phoenix; (602) 252-8848 or www.heard.org.