Chronicles in cottonwood

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

Hopi doll

The Heard Museum

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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.


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