How to identify vintage katsina dolls
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.