Decades of Katsina Dolls
An iconic Southwestern art form moves from cultural artifact to mne art.
An iconic Southwestern art form moves from cultural artifact to fine art.
Katsina dolls have fascinated collectors, scholars and fans of Southwestern Native cultures for decades. Carved by initiated Hopi men for centuries, the dolls represent the katsinam, the supernatural beings who bring life-giving rain to the dry Hopi mesas, and whose virtues are taught to children as the path to a good, rich life.
Although the katsina dolls are an essential component of an ancestral cultural tradition, they’ve only been known to non-hopis for a bit more than a century. People who want to learn more about one of the best-known arts in the Southwest can see hundreds of them dating from the late 1800s to the 21st century at Phoenix’s Heard Museum.
“The Heard has two major katsina doll collections— the Goldwater and Fred Harvey collections,” says Dr. Ann Marshall, director of research at the museum. Harvey obtained many dolls from H.R. Voth, a Mennonite missionary; Indian trader Frederick Volz; and others.
Originally, the dolls were simply carved and painted with natural pigments. As teaching tools for Hopi girls grasping the nuances of their ancestral culture, they were meant to be hung on a wall, and so lack a stable base. However, once Hopi carvers learned the dolls could be turned into cash or trade goods, they endeavored to create pieces that would appeal to tourists traveling along the Atchison, Topeka and
Santa Fe Railroad. One example of an early touristtrade doll is a Tungwivkatsina, or Whipper, which Volz purchased for Harvey. The late-19th-century doll is seated on a stand and dressed in a kilt repurposed from a crocheted doily.
Another early example of katsina dolls carved for the traveling public: a Honànkatsina, or Badger, dated to the turn of the 20th century, also acquired by Volz for the Harvey Company. The doll sports a tiny concho belt crafted from tin, poster paints and a cloth sash complete with fringe. “These were made with the idea of selling,” says Marshall.
One of the Heard’s earliest katsina dolls came from the collection of two remarkable Arizona men. The 1890s-era Sa’lakwmana, or shalako, doll was given to the museum by the late Arizona Sen. Barry Goldwater near the end of his 1964 presidential run. Much of the Goldwater Collection, though, was assembled by John Rinker “Rink” Kibbey, a noted Phoenix architect. Kibbey, a friend of the Goldwater family, introduced the then-7-year-old boy to the high mesas and ancient villages of Hopiland during a 1916 collecting trip. “On that first visit to Hopi, I recall that Rink purchased a large mudhead nearly 24 inches high for about $3,” Goldwater wrote in the introduction to the 1975 Heard catalog of his collection.
Goldwater was entranced—and hooked. As a young man, Goldwater endeavored to assemble his own collection; however, as he noted, “The war came along and intervened.” After returning home from his World War II service, Goldwater learned that Kibbey wished to sell his collection. “He asked me what I could offer,” Goldwater wrote, “and I said I will give you what I have in my savings account, which was $1,200.” The deal was struck, and Goldwater’s life savings became the core of his collection.
Goldwater continued to visit the Hopi villages regularly, where he was welcomed into homes and kivas. He learned more about the religious aspects of the katsina spirits and the dolls that teach the Hopi about the proper way to live. While there, he was granted the opportunity to observe katsina dances. “The few katsina dances I have seen in my life left me with about the same feeling I have when I attend communion in my own church or mass in the Catholic Church,” Goldwater wrote.
That same sense of respect and awe informed Goldwater’s continued collection efforts; ultimately,
the collection grew to 437 dolls spanning the late 18th century to the early 1960s, including 70 dolls commissioned by Oswald White Bear Fredericks. But, the time had come to pass on the collected history of the Hopi carving art to new stewards, and the Heard accepted the gift.
The Goldwater Collection also showcases the continuing evolution of katsina doll carving. Bruce Mcgee, the director of the Heard Museum Shop, was literally raised around katsina dolls. He’s a member of the Mcgee trading family, and grew up on the Hopi Reservation. “These dolls are like books in wood,” says Mcgee. “But, when I was a kid, [the carvings] are nothing are like what we see today.”
Mcgee recounts that dolls made for tourists, which included skirts made from tablecloths, real feathers, poster paints and more “action” oriented figures, came into the trading posts through the 1950s. They also started to appear more human, and were mounted on stands. “In the 1960s, dolls became more refined, but they still used lots of feathers,” he says.
That ended in the early 1970s, when the federal government began restricting the possession of eagle feathers by non-indians, and prosecuting dealers who sold works with migratory feathers. Alarmed that he and other dealers would get caught in the legal crossfire, Mcgee worked to ensure that he could continue legally selling dolls—and that his carvers could continue to make a living, or at least supplement their incomes, with carving. “I knew that Brian Honyouti carved one-piece dolls,” Mcgee says. “I told him that we need to carve feathers now,” or face possible fines, jail time or both. “Brian started showing others how to carve and groove feathers.”
In addition to realistic-appearing feathers, the 1970s saw carving moving away from craft and toward fine art. “Alvin James from the Third Mesa started the foray into the art world,” Mcgee says. “I paid $200 for his first doll. My dad thought I’d lost my mind.” Chastised, Mcgee hid the carving in the back of a case, intending to purchase it himself. But, “a lady came by, looked in the case and admired it. I told her it was $275. ‘I’ll take it!’ she said.” And, the rest is history. These dolls are painted with acrylic tints, are posed as if they’re dancing, and can range to more than 24 inches tall.
In addition to Honyouti and James, the latter 20th century saw the rise of talented artists such as Cecil Calnimptewa, Neil David, Dennis Tewa and other such carvers.
And, the art continues to evolve. Aaron Fredericks and Mike Jenkins are noted for their ultra-realistic dolls. “We’re seeing carvings coming out that would blow elders’ minds,” says Mcgee. “It’s like turning the pages of a book to see the progression of the carving art.”
But, just as the earth turns around the sun, katsina
doll carving also runs in cycles. Led by artists such as Manfred Susunkewa, some carvers are creating “retro” style dolls—with flat carvings, no bases and natural pigments. “In particular, Tayron and Ryon Polequaptewa are pushing the envelope,” Mcgee says. “They even treat their natural pigments to make them appear older.”
And, of course, carvers still create pieces for their original use—teaching Hopi children about their heritage and reinforcing life lessons. “Even my sister got a ‘grandma’ doll,” which is a flat doll with sugarinfused natural pigment paints for babies to chew on, Mcgee says.
Carvers like Wally Grover and Kevin Secakuku continue the tradition of creating art from the humble cottonwood root. Grover, who lives in Tewa Village on First Mesa, has carved contemporary dolls since 1987. “I got started right out of high school,” says Grover. “I like to make animal katsina dolls, like Owl and White Bear, and Badger for healing.” He sells at the Heard’s Katsina Doll Marketplace each spring, and also has a spot at the Hopi Cultural Center. “I’d rather meet the people and know where my art is going,” says Grover. “The dolls are like my family.”
Grover prefers to make realistic-appearing dolls. “The wood talks to me,” he says. Grover, who works full time as an artist because it allows him time to volunteer, also creates rattles and bows and arrows for boys as well as full-size dolls for older girls. “I do it for myself, my children and grandkids,” Grover says as he prepares to coach a basketball game.
Secakuku, on the other hand, makes more Old Style works. “My most requested works are Soyoko clowns,” says Secakuku, who lives in the Phoenix area, but whose home community is Kykotsmovi. “But people were asking for Old Style so I just started doing it.”
But, Secakuku had to first unlearn some things. “Philbert Honanie taught me how to carve in the Old Style,” says Secakuku, the nephew of acclaimed artist Alph Secakuku. “‘Don’t be such a perfectionist on the Old Style dolls,’ Philbert told me,” says Secakuku, who normally works with painstaking details.
Mcgee says that the katsina doll carving art will continue to change. But, whether creating Old Style, action figures or ultra-realistic carvings from the cottonwood roots that bring life just as water brings life to the people, he says that one thing will always remain the same: “They will follow their hearts.”
From left: Hopi cradle doll; Willis Kewanwytewa (Hopi),
1st Mesa Cloud katsina doll; Willie Qumyintewa (Hopi),
War God katsina doll; Anthony Briones (Hopi),
White Bear katsina doll; Peter Shelton (Hopi), Snake Dancer katsina doll; and Von Monongya (Hopi), Great Horned Owl katsina doll. Photo by Megan Richmond, Heard Museum.
1. Wilson Tawaquaptewa (Hopi, 1871-1960), carving with stuffed snake and clothing of painted cloth and commercial leather, and jewelry with several different kinds of shells, 1930s-40s, 333/25". Heard Museum Collection, gift of Mr. and Mrs. Henry S. Galbraith, 3309-228. Photo by Craig Smith.
2. Manfred Susunkewa (Hopi), Hiilili, ca. 1990, mineral pigment paint, 13". Ht. 13 inches. Heard Museum Collection, gift of Joann Phillips, 4374-1. Photo by Craig Smith.
3. Ryon Polequaptewa (Hopi), Hòo‘e, 2007, 16¼". Heard Museum Collection, 4605-1. Photo by Craig Smith.
Nata’aska (Black Ogre), ca. 1900, 18". Heard Museum Collection, gift of Sen. Barry M. Goldwater. NA-SW-HO-F-126.
Photo by Craig Smith.
Ahöla, early 1900s, 28". Heard Museum Collection, gift of Sen. Barry M. Goldwater. NA-SW-HO-F-127. Photo by Craig Smith.
4. Cecil Calnimptewa Jr. (Hopi), Kwaakatsina or Eagle katsina, 1992, 21¼". Heard Museum Collection, gift of Ruth and Sid Schultz, 4513-5. Photo by Craig Smith.
5. Honànkatsina or Badger katsina, pre-1901, 13½". Fred Harvey Fine Arts Collection at the Heard Museum, 850CI. Photo by Craig Smith.