Heard History: Katsina Doll Dancers in the Desert

HOME_Niman Katsina

by: Amanda Day

It’s easy to get caught up in the sun-kissed allure of Arizona’s beauty, weather and delicious local haunts, but the historical value beneath the Southwest’s surface is much richer than the  Bentley owner parked in front of Olive and Ivy. Arizona’s Heard museum houses one of the largest, rarest collections of Native American tribal art in the world, including the Goldwater and Harvey Company collection of 500 Hopi Katsina dolls. The dolls exemplify the deep significance, artistic value and continuing inspiration that the Hopi tribe has given the world.


Fragile Relics, Strong Meanings

Ann Marshall, the director of curation and education at the Heard, introduced me to a pristine museum gallery peppered with rows of small wooden creatures. Each figure is adorned with stunning detail, some with intricately braided sashes, others bursting with rare plumage and some so realistic they look as if they’re about come to life and dance. You won’t be able to find dolls like these on the shelves of your local Target. The word Katsina represents supernatural beings in Hopi tradition. They are believed to control the weather, assist in daily activities and even punish those who disrespect social and ceremonial laws. Katsinam act as messengers between mortal and spiritual domains. The “ti’tihu,” or Katsina dolls are given to young girls as an embodiment of a prayer for health, growth and fertility. A true ti’tihu doll can only be carved by a true Hopi, and imitations are easily identifiable by the tribe.

Art Imitates Life Through the Ages

The Goldwater collection acts as a sort of living timeline of the Hopi tribe, with dolls ranging from the late 1800s to present day. Marshall’s knowledge and passion for the priceless collection was evident in her every movement as she guided me through the stunning collection. No painstaking detail was lost on her as we traversed the living relics of Hopi histor The oldest Katsina dolls feature the craftsmanship of early Hopi tools, mineral-based paints and a variety of plumage from local birds. As modernity took its course and new tools were adapted, the dolls began to exhibit more detail. All Katsina dolls are carved out of a single piece of Cottonwood, which Marshall explained is associated with water in Hopi culture. As the process evolved, some artists began to capture a Katsinam’s exuberance mid-dance or add intricate accoutrements like braided belts and clothing, while others made them into more representative art pieces. Although the styles and details of the Katsina dolls differ greatly, their impact and ethereal beauty remain equally captivating throughout the ages.

Inspiration for Generations of Artists

Hopi Katsina dolls have inspired more than ceremony, rain and prayer, they’re inspiration for all genres of artist. In fact, Katsinam are the primary inspiration for many of famed artist Georgia O’Keefe’s work. Beginning September 28th, the Heard will be opening the “Georgia O’Keefe in New Mexico: Architecture, Katsinam and the Land” exhibit, which features some of O’Keefe’s most beloved works. The exhibit showcases regional Southwestern beauty that fascinated O’Keefe from 1929-1953, including churches, folk art and her unique representations of Katsinam. The spirits of the Hopi Katsinam have guided countless Hopis through life and inspired some of America’s most prolific artists through their great meaning, depth and beauty. This week, instead of wandering around Kierland Commons looking for a suitable happy hour, take an afternoon to explore the rich historical beauty of some of Arizona’s earliest inhabitants at the Heard Museum.

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