Hopi Kachinas, or Hopi Kachina dolls as they are sometimes referred to, are one of the most interesting items made by today's Native American artists (Hopi). Kachina carving is a strong part of their current and past culture. The Kachina dolls are representations of invisible/ supernatural beings. The Hopi Indians are very religious people who base religion around their structure. Kachinas control nature and have the spirits of living things, such as plants or animals. It's also believed they have spirits of non-living things, such as wind, rain, thunder, lighting and snow.
The Kachinas visit the Hopi people between December and July. The Kachina dancers give the Kachina dolls to young girls and women. The boys receive rattles and bow and arrow sets. They also bring gifts such as rain, good crops and happiness. They are NOT considered as they are refereed to as Gods, but supernatural beings that assist the Hopi in their daily struggles and in life.
There are known to be around 425 Kachinas (2000 if you include the Manas) in the Hopi religion. The number varies in knowing which ones were recently added or who you're consulting.
Kachina dolls started in what's now southwestern United States. The real kachina dolls are made only from cottonwood root and are hand-carved. It is known that the spirits walked with the people long ago. When the natives ignored them, the spirits were insulted, and so became invisible to the people. Customs hold that the kachina's spirits trained people how to live there daily lives.
The Hopi were the first people to imply them. Although, the Navajo, Zuni, pueblo and apache tribes made Kachina dolls as well, trying only to carve them from cottonwood root to envoy the spirit entities, like wise used in rituals, and as symbolic icons.
Through the years the way Kachinas are carved has evolved. They started out as pieces of flat wood with features painted on them by using paints made from plants, rocks, and clay. These were the dolls that were made over 150 years ago. Slowly they started to appear with arms and legs carved. The arms would be held against the body of the doll as if it were holding it's stomach. This type of doll is called a "belly acher". As time went on, dolls started showing action poses as if caught in the middle of a dance and finally to the gallery style, where every detail imaginable is intricately carved. Most hopi kachina dolls are one piece carvings. This means that the arms and legs were never added to the doll later. Other items such as ears, nose, eyes, and objects in the hands are added before the doll is painted.
The kachina themselves – rather than the dolls – are largely described as “spirit messengers”, whereas some believe they might represent the spirit of the dead – if there were a difference. The Hopi state that at one time in the past, the kachina deities visited the mesas in person, but that they now do so in the form of masked dancers.
Whereas kachina dolls are sold and hung from beams or walls, the real deities are surrounded with far greater respect. The Hopi deities live on the San Francisco mountains, though are present amongst the Hopi for part of the year. As such, the religious year is divided into two parts.
The deities arrive at the Hopi mesas in the form of rain-bearing clouds and normally arrive in early February for the Powamuya ceremony, or bean dance. The hopi do indeed believe that in the past, the deities literally walked amongst them, but that today, their presence resides in those selected to wear a mask; it is the mask that transforms the hopi individual into a “possessed” entity.
Zuni pueblo to the west of the Hopi mesas, others argue that it came from the Rio Grande, others that it came from the Mimbres cult of the south, and/or that it developed in Mexico. In short: no-one knows. Details of the paintings on Awatovi murals, an ancestral Hopi site, show costumed and masked figures as separated elements or interacting in scenes. But the role and iconography of the dolls does strongly echo certain Aztec deities such as Tlaloc, the god of rain, and Quetzalcoatl, the feathered serpent, who was also the bringer of rain and corn. Seeing the kachina are specifically linked with the rain…
Though all deities are equal, some are more popular than others, the most famous for outside is Kokopelli, a fertility deity, usually depicted as a humpbacked flute player (often with a huge phallus and feathers or antenna-like protrusions on his head). Like most fertility deities, Kokopelli presides over both childbirth and agriculture, but he is also a trickster god and represents the spirit of music.
Interestingly, Kokopelli is one of the most easily recognized figures found in the petroglyphs and pictographs of the southwest, the earliest known petroglyph depicting him dating to about 1000 A.D. It underlines that there is – at least in the case of some deities – a tradition that has spanned a millennium.
Just how old the cult truly is, no-one knows. In the dances, the Kokopilua kachina dancer sings a song in a language so ancient that not a word of it is understood by the modern Hopi themselves, who know only that their deities have accompanied them throughout their migrations… and continue to visit them annually at the mesas.
Outsiders want to experience the Hopi ceremonies, but are unlikely to truly capture the essence of the activities. A Hopi indian has been raised, from birth, in a tradition, surrounded by dolls that represented otherworldly creatures that are nevertheless part of their world and daily life. These entities did not crash-land just one day somewhere; these entities have been with them for thousands of years, and continue to interact with the hopi in a manner that only a Hopi can truly understand.
Recent discoveries in Chaco canyon have also suggested that the kachina cult was introduced by cannibalistic warrior refugees from the south. It is clear that this archaeological discovery – or at least the conclusion drawn from it – has created controversy within the Native American community.