For over 2,000 years, Native Americans of the Southwest have prayed to the great spirits to bless their world with good weather, abundant game and a bountiful harvest. The Pueblo people believe that each year, just after the winter solstice, beings known as Kachinas bring them messages from these spirits, walking upon the earth to interact with the Pueblo people. At the end of the planting season, they return to the spirit world. Since each tribe may have their own distinct Kachinas, there is thought to be over 400 of them.
Kachina dolls history begins with the Hopi people, who were first to create Kachina dolls, as a way to teach children about Kachinas. During the season when the Kachinas visit the visible world, Hopi men dress in Kachina costumes to perform dances and ceremonies, in order to interact with the spiritual beings. If the rituals are properly performed, the Kachinas may communicate through the men who portray them or may appear to the tribe in clouds or mist. Only men are allowed to personify the Kachinas. To educate the rest of the tribe about Kachinas, men carve dolls, traditionally from a single piece of cottonwood root, so that the whole tribe can experience a connection.
Photographs of Kachina dolls date back to the 1800s, during the early exploration of the West, evident in both Hopi and Zuni tribes. The dolls were not used as toys, but rather were hung from walls or displayed on the floor. The dolls were passed down from generation to generation, staying with the tribes for hundreds of years.
It was not until the late 1800s and early 1900s that they began to be sold in the marketplace, and Native Americans began to create Kachina dolls specifically to be sold outside the tribe. Some of today’s Hopi people see Kachina dolls as a bridge between Hopis and non-Hopis. The Navajo people began making their own Kachina dolls in the 20th century, adding their own decorative elements, including beads and turquoise.
Today, Kachina dolls history continues as Kachina dolls, both old and new, are perceived as one of the most collectible Native American crafts on the market. An ancient and rare Kachina sold for $250,000. Fine contemporary Kachina dolls can sell for as much as $50,000. Cottonwood root is still the preferred wood. The material is light, easy to carve and very sturdy.