Chronicles in cottonwood

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

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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.

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