Kachina doll

Materials:  Wood, leather, feathers paint
Dimension:  18cm high
Place acquiredSouvenir shop, Banf, Canada
Place of manufacture:  Probably Arizona, USA

The Canadian Rockies are a long way from Arizona. But this is how far this Kachina figure travelled before I came to buy it. It was one of a handful of Kachina dolls amongst various other Haida, Iroquois and Inuit handicrafts in the First Nations section of a tourist souvenir shop on Main Street, Banf, Alberta.

As well as being rather geographically out of place, it is also several times removed from whatever spiritual meaning Kachina figures have for their originators, the Hopi people of Arizona. A Hopi kachina doll will traditionally represent a particular spirit connected with an animal, a deity or a natural phenomenon. The nearest identification I could find for this one was Star Head. So perhaps a spirit of the stars? But it could just as well be the fanciful invention of the Navajo craftsperson who made it. For this is a Navajo Kachina as opposed to a Hopi Kachina. For the neighbouring Navajo the Hopi kachina spirits have little traditional significance, but the dolls have proved such a marketing success that there is a thriving and highly organised cottage industry for their manufacture in both the Hopi and Navajo reservations of northern Arizona and they provide a valuable source of income. They are all individually made and they are highly collectable – the Hopi ones, made from cottonwood, are the more expensive ‘originals’ but the Navajo ones are more varied and colourful, possibly through lack of traditional constraints, and they can also be very sought after.

Originally the dolls would have been fashioned as childrens’ play things and teaching tools by the adult dancers who performed the religious ceremonies from which these costumes have been taken. The first dolls dating from the 19th century were very simple objects, with the figure roughly drawn on to a flat wooden surface. But as the tourist and collector market grew the figures became more intricate and elaborate. The Navajo ones in particular have become animated, like this one, into a dancing pose, and mounted on to a wooden base for easy display.

Words like ‘reservations’, ‘cottage industry’, ‘valuable income source’ seem to hint at another more troubled story concerning the deprived and marginalised situation of native american communities today. This Kachina doll is part of that story too. The person that made this doll made it for money, and traditional Hopi beliefs would have been far from their mind. They may have been mormon, or catholic or adventist or any one of a number of missionary sects that have begun to make inroads into traditional native american beliefs. But ‘authentic’ kachina dolls are what the tourist and the collectors' market demands and so this is what they supply.