The Kachina spirits live in the San Francisco Peaks and other mountains which surround the 3 Arizona mesas that are the ancestral home of the Hopi-shinumu, the Peaceful People. Each winter solstice, the Kachina spirits come to the villages for the Bean Dance Ceremony. They are not worshipped, but are allies of the Hopi that connect them with the forces of nature and take their petitions to the Creator. This understanding is at the heart of the Kachina dolls meanings.
Hopi men personify the spirits in sacred ceremonies and act as intermediaries between the people and the spirit world. They dress in traditional regalia to depict the individual spirit. While participating in the ceremony, the man’s personal identity becomes the Kachina he represents.
The Kachina spirits dance and sing in ancient rituals. They also provide gifts. The prayers of the Hopi people for sun and rain, good harvest and successful hunting are conveyed through these ceremonies.
Ceremonies continue until mid-July, and then the Kachina spirits return to their mountains for a well-earned rest. This is celebrated with the Going Home Ceremony, called the Ninman. The spirits will be back in December.
The Kachina dolls meanings represent various deities, animals, ancestors or natural elements. Before each dance, Hopi men carve Kachina dolls from cottonwood. Each doll depicts a particular spirit that will participate in the dance.
There are over 200 different Kachina spirits honored in these ceremonies. Kachina dolls are given to Hopi girls so they will remember the Kachina spirits and come to understand their role in Hopi Life.
Following the ceremony, the Kachina dolls are displayed on the walls of the pueblo. They help village children to learn about the characteristics of each Kachina spirit.
No word exists in the Hopi language that denotes “religion,” but this is the English word that comes closest to expressing the importance of ritual in Hopi life.
Four basic types of Kachina dolls are made:
- Putsqatihu are made for infants and are simple flat figures with enough features so the dolls can be identified.
- Putstihu taywa’yla have flat bodies but 3-dimensional faces. These dolls are usually given to toddlers.
- Muringputihu are given to infant girls. These dolls have carved faces and bodies in the shape of cylinders.
- Tithu are what most people think of as Kachina dolls. These are the fully developed figures given to Hopi girls ages 2 and up at the ceremonies.
Some of the individual spirits are:
- Crow Mother, who brings with her a basket of sprouts. This is a symbol of the germination of seeds during winter.
- Hemis Kachina wears a mask that shows fertility symbols. He shakes a rattle to depict the sound of rain.
- Masau rules over all the earth and the underworld. This spirit is both respected and feared. He controls the arrival of other Kachina spirits.
- Puchkofmoktaka is also called the scorpion. He is a comic figure who runs races during the ceremonies. He carries a stick in each hand and sometimes throws a stick at a competitor who runs ahead of him.
- Tawa or Sun Kachina symbolizes abundance and life. He comes during the solstice to beckon the sun’s return.
Symbols on Kachina masks have the following meanings:
- Under the eyes may be two vertical lines. These symbolize a warrior’s footprints.
- Fertility is represented by phallic symbols.
- Officials may be designated by an inverted ‘V.’
- The color yellow symbolizes north or northwest.
- West or southwest is represented by blue-green.
- Red represents the south or southwest.
- Black stands for Nadir, the underworld.
- White means east or northeast.
- All colors shown together symbolize heaven or Zenith.
Hopi ceremonies developed over centuries to express the spiritual aspects Hopi life. This gentle people have preserved their cultural heritage despite hardships and the misguided efforts of the United States government to “assimilate” them into the “mainstream.” As children learn the Kachina dolls meanings, they develop an understanding of Hopi ritual. Respect for all living things and for the Creator are at the center of Hopi spiritual life.