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Gathering of Katsina Carvers Brings Together Pros and Amateurs in Phoenix

A gathering at the Heard Museum in Phoenix brought together nearly 100 carvers of Hopi katsina dolls.
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The nation’s largest gathering of Hopi katsina doll carvers, the 14th annual Heard Museum Katsina Doll Marketplace, took place last in April in Phoenix, Arizona. Nearly 100 Hopi carvers were on hand for the one-day “Show and Sell” event featuring traditional and contemporary styles of these unique creations.

Don't let the word "doll" confuse you—traditionally, katsina "dolls" are carved representations of the Katsinam, spirit messengers of the universe, and are used as teaching tools. The brightly painted carvings from the root of the cottonwood tree have changed little over the centuries. Called tithu by the Hopi people, “the katsinas have the power to bring rain, punish offenders of social or ceremonial laws, and, in general, to function as messengers between mortals and the spiritual domain,” according to the Hopi Cultural Preservation Office.

Lurking in these pieces of cottonwood tree are kachina dolls waiting to be brought forth by Hopi carvers. Photo" Lee Allen/AZ Freelance

Different Katsinam represent different aspects of life. The Soyoko Katsinam, for example, help teach children proper behavior and misbehaving children are warned they could be given to the Soyoko, “a threat that often instills a great desire on the part of the child to correct his or her behavior,” according to the Museum’s Hopi Katsina Dolls: 100 Years of Carving.

The featured doll this year was a Hu’ Whipper katsina crafted by Michael Dean Jenkins, valued at nearly $3,000 and given away to a lucky winner of a random drawing. Jenkins (Hopi/Pima), a musician who says he carves to support his band, lives at Old Oraibi Third Mesa Village where he applies a soft pastel palette and a sanded finish to his creations. 

Photo: Lee Allen/AZFreelance

The symbolism behind this particular carving is well known to Hopi children. “When the time approaches for whipping the children during Kiva ceremonies,” writes Barton Wright in Kachinas/A Hopi Artist’s Documentary, “A signal is given and three kachinas, Crow Mother and her two sons, Hu’Kachinas, noisily circle the Kiva before entering. Initiates are brought forward by their ceremonial god-parents and placed on the sand painting. Hu’Kachinas give them four strikes of a yucca whip as a gesture of purification.” (Heard Museum historian Bruce McGee quickly advises: “This is an initiation ceremony for young Hopi boys. They are never hurt, it is only symbolic”).

Award-winning carver/sculptor/painter Gerry Quotskuyva with his 4'-tall, 50-pound cottonwood trunk that will become THE GNARLY ROOT PROJECT he will work on for the next 18 months. Photo: Lee Allen/AZFreelance

Symbolism—in a big way—comes from the man called The Michaelangelo of Hopi carvers, Gerry Quatskuyva (Bear Strap clan with Yaqui and Hispanic heritage) who used the show to announce his Gnarly Root Project. “I stumbled across this 4’ tall, 50-pound root section in the Verde River and it took two of us to carry it back to my studio. I have a concept of what I’d like to do with it, but it’s one of those things that, once I start, it will evolve as it speaks to me. This will be the largest piece I’ve ever done as far as overall composition and I expect to be working on it for a year and a half.”

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“This show is an educational and culturally-enriching day,” said event coordinator James Barajas. “Creations displayed were valued at $10 to $10,000 giving 10-year-old first-time carvers their initial experience at selling to the public as well as allowing famous veterans and old-timers to make some sales.”

One who did so was 91-year-old Willis Kewenwytewa. “I carve mostly farmer and owl kacininas and have done so for 76 years," he said. "But I’ll carve whatever people want." It seems he made the right choices—both the pieces he had brought to sell were gone before lunchtime.

91-year-old lifelong kachina carver Willis Kewanwytewa gazes at the two traditional dolls he brought to the Hopi carver show. Within hours, they both had been sold. Photo: Lee Allen/AZFreelance

Featured doll this year was a Hu' Whipper kachina crafted by Michael Dean Jenkins, valued at $3,000. Photo courtesy Heard Museum.

Photo: Lee Allen/AZFreelance

Photo: Lee Allen/AZFreelance

Photo: Lee Allen/AZFreelance

Photo: Lee Allen/AZFreelance

Photo: Lee Allen/AZFreelance

Photo: Lee Allen/AZFreelance