Award-winning craftsman Stetson Honyumptewa was born in the heart of Kachina Doll Country—Moenkopi on the Hopi Reservation in Arizona—and has been carving creations out of cottonwood since he was 12 years old.
While there are other tribes with their own figurine-carving histories and traditions, Hopi kachina dolls remain unique, made by tribal carvers who have dedicated their lives to the art of master craftsmanship. Truth be told, to call kachinas (also known as katsinas) “dolls” does them disservice as they are stylized religious icons painted to represent figures from Hopi mythology with deep spiritual reverence for the natural world.
As the Native Languages of the Americas website says, "For generations, these figures have been used to teach children about their religion—no Hopi child has ever teethed on a katsina or taken one to bed."
Honyumptewa’s creative efforts often reflect the Hopi worldview by combining tradition, religion, and elements of children's stories. A frequent Best-of-Show winner at the Heard Museum Indian Fair and Market as well as the Santa Fe Indian Market, he walked away with a Heard 2012 Best of Show award for a piece that took him two months to make—and just two hours to sell.
“I called it ‘Techno Kid on the Run,’ with an ogre chasing a youngster because the child wanted to listen to his electronic devices more than listen to his parents and his elders," Honyumptewa explains. "The ogre tries to tell the youth to stick with the old ways and get busy in the fields, but nowadays kids would rather stay home on the computer, cell phone, or iPad.”
The scary creations have historically been used in the discipline of unruly children, according to Honyumptewa. “Ogres have their own place where they stay until they come into the villages every year to collect their bounty. The katsina mother goes to the villages with a basket of corn to be ground up by the girls and an admonition to the boys to hunt for rabbit meat so the ogre has something to collect and won’t take the children away.”
Maintaining traditional ways in contemporary times is a recurring theme for the long-time carver noted for his incredible detail and attention to anatomical proportions. His kachina carving that won 2010 Best of Show in Santa Fe is representative of Mongwu, the Great Horned Owl Kachina who disciplines clowns when their behavior—like children’s behavior—gets out of control.
“Kachinas represent a concept and we’re told not to change any details, so I spend my pre-carving time collecting information and old pictures of ancient ogres to make them accurate,” he says.
Each finished piece will be a one-time effort for the master carver, who endures lots of stress and many sleepless nights on every creation. “Time, effort, and patience are involved. It’s a lot of work to do it right, but the end product is worth it because I go for quality and not quantity. And this is all I do, I stay at home and carve all day long—except for farming season, when I’m at work in the fields or participating in ceremonies.”
Honyumptewa also manages to find time to mentor a new generation of carvers including his nephew Ron Honyuptewa, a member of the Sun Clan, also raised in Moenkopi, who began carving at age 16. The mentoring appears successful as Ron, who works by day as a police officer, has won awards at the Arizona State Fair, the Heard Museum, the Prescott Indian Art Show, and the Gallup Inter-Tribal competition.
Uncle Stetson, meanwhile, is already at work on his next piece, tentatively titled "A Threesome" that involves a woman, her lover, and a mocking bird that copies everything he sees.