De­ci­pher­ing Katsina

How to iden­tify vin­tage katsina dolls

Native American Art - - COLUMNS/FEATURES - By Mark Sublette

How to iden­tify vin­tage katsina dolls.

Hopi katsina im­agery has been an iconic sym­bol of the South­west ever since the rail­roads first made their way across the re­gion in the 1880s. Not long af­ter the ar­rival of the trains, tourism geared to­ward Na­tive American cul­ture fol­lowed and the Hopi and the Zuni be­gan carv­ing dolls not only for self-use, but also for sale or trade. Na­tive American trad­ing posts like Keams Canyon (founded in 1875) near Hopi car­ried a large in­ven­tory of Hopi katsina dolls, pot­tery tiles and jars adorned with painted katsi­nam.

Numer­ous well-known artists in the early 20th cen­tury trav­eled to the re­gion to cap­ture the peo­ple and their dances. May­nard Dixon first vis­ited Hopi in 1902 and came back of­ten. In 1923, Dixon made a four­month trip to Hopi to cap­ture the katsina so­ci­eties in pen­cil and paint. Dixon’s Kachina Maker de­picts a male carver putting the fi­nal touches on a katsina doll at Walpi. Dixon also cap­tured the mun­dane daily life of the peo­ple, which can be seen in his piece Hopi Woman Cut­ting Meat. Dixon felt he needed to not only un­der­stand the spir­i­tual side, but also how peo­ple lived. Con­tem­po­rary artists continue to be in­spired by the katsina doll and Hopi cul­ture. Ed Mell and Fran­cis Liv­ingston both draw on this im­agery oc­ca­sion­ally, and it’s re­flected in their paint­ings of in­di­vid­ual dolls and the dancers them­selves.

The Zuni and Hopi pueb­los are as­so­ci­ated with dolls made in the early 20th cen­tury, but many of the Rio Grande pueb­los also made flat or al­tar dolls mainly for cer­e­mo­nial pur­poses. Most col­lec­tors as­so­ci­ate katsina dolls with those made by the Hopi, as they had the most ac­tive carvers.

There are still numer­ous katsina carvers at Hopi who make ex­quis­ite, intricate dolls and sculp­tures, which are of­ten made out of a sin­gle cot­ton­wood root. Dolls cre­ated by th­ese well-known carvers can bring thou­sands of dol­lars. Un­for­tu­nately, you will of­ten also see so-called “katsina dolls,” which are made to re­sem­ble crude Hopi dolls, in tourist traps, gas sta­tions along I-40, cor­ner road stands and un­rep­utable gal­leries. In­stead of the intricate carv­ings, th­ese repli­cas are crudely formed, non­de­script, dec­o­rated with co­pi­ous amounts of chicken feath­ers and glued to a base dis­play­ing a non-hopi sound­ing name.

Th­ese so-called “katsina dolls” are, at best, pro­duced in an assem­bly-type fash­ion us­ing Na­tive em­ploy­ees so the dolls can be le­git­i­mately sold as Na­tive American katsina dolls. Worse, they are some­times im­ported from out of the coun­try and sold as “katsina style dolls.” Th­ese have no in­trin­sic value other than as a dust catcher to fill an empty space.

The Nava­jos do carve sculp­tures, which are col­lectible. There are artis­tic wood sculp­tures de­pict­ing Navajo cer­e­monies, such as Yei Bi Chei dancers, or ones done in a large for­mat with whim­si­cal im­agery. The most no­table Navajo carver is Char­lie Wil­leto (18971964), whose carv­ings are very col­lectible.

Con­tem­po­rary Hopi katsina dolls are highly soughtafter, with a sin­gle large doll tak­ing months to cre­ate, of­ten to be sold within the first week of com­ple­tion to ei­ther a high-end In­dian art gallery or a col­lec­tor who com­mis­sioned it.

The Ed­die Basha Collection in Chan­dler, Ari­zona, has a won­der­ful collection of some of the best con­tem­po­rary katsina dolls. The Heard Mu­seum in Phoenix also has a large collection of both vin­tage and con­tem­po­rary dolls for view­ing, as well as some con­tem­po­rary Hopi dolls for sale. It is a must-see for those in­ter­ested in the sub­ject.

Orig­i­nally, Hopi dolls were made as gifts to young Hopi girls from ini­ti­ated male katsina dancers dur­ing the Bean Dance to help them be a part of the katsina method­ol­ogy, spirit and rit­ual of their tribe.

The dances per­formed by men and boys are an in­te­gral part of Hopi life and cul­ture. There are close to 1,000 dif­fer­ent types of katsi­nam, many of which are no longer known or danced; some of th­ese ear­li­est dolls can­not be iden­ti­fied.

Not all katsina carvers from the early 20th cen­tury rep­re­sented spe­cific katsi­nam; a fa­mous ex­am­ple is Wilson Tawaquaptewa’s (1871-1960) work. Wilson’s katsina dolls are un­signed, but are iden­ti­fi­able as an artist by his unique char­ac­ter­is­tics. Th­ese in­clude ex­ag­ger­ated rab­bit ears, lines of black dots along the body parts and vivid pri­mary colors. Tawaquaptewa dolls are highly col­lectible and can bring a thou­sand dol­lars for a small piece to many thou­sands for a large, intricate piece.

There are numer­ous ex­am­ples of “Old Style dolls,” which can be le­git­i­mate Hopi katsina dolls done in a sim­ple style rem­i­nis­cent of the early dolls. Un­for­tu­nately, there are also un­scrupu­lous non-Na­tives who try and pass off Old Style carv­ings as vin­tage. El­e­ments to look for in the de­ter­mi­na­tion of au­then­tic­ity, value and the dat­ing of katsina dolls in­clude wear, body style, col­oration, species of wood and prove­nance.

Whip­per katsina, 1930, ap­pears in the Bean Dance.

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