How are Kachina Dolls Made?

The creation of Kachina, or Katsina, dolls has been happening for centuries. The Hopi tribes were the first to create Kachina. These Kachina were usually a simple, flat piece of wood or stone with minerals or vegetable dye for decoration. As time progressed, Kachina dolls became more structured and representative of sacred beliefs.

Within Hopi belief, the Kachina Doll is a way to connect or communicate with the spirit world. Kachina Dolls would be made to resemble deities, deceased ancestors, spirit animals, and others. Because the Kachina Doll is often considered a sacred piece of spiritual connection, their creation is a delicate and dedicated process.

Kachina Dolls are generally made of cottonwood root because of its availability and sturdiness. Occasionally the dolls are made from tupelo, a type of swamp wood. Once the chosen wood has been secured, the next step is carving the full shape of the Kachina. Using chisels, knifes, saws, and other carving tools, one can shape the wood to resemble their desired Kachina. Some choose to leave a rounded base of wood at the bottom of the Kachina, while others will carve feet. Depending on the Kachina’s look, some people may choose to create additional wooden parts such as eyes, beaks, or other features to attach to the wooden carving.

Once completed, kaolin clay is used to smooth and whiten the wood, making it ready for painting and decoration. Depending on what the Kachina represents, it may take days of elaborate detailing to complete. Some Kachina dolls are entirely wood, and one must carve the feathers of the headdress, paint them, and then attach them to the Kachina. Others may choose to use cloth or feathers (real or fake) for any head pieces.

Today, painting of the Kachina is often done with water colors or tempura, however in the past vegetable dyes and native mineral coloring was used. The colors chosen for the Kachina doll are a direct reflection of the Kachina’s representation, so it can take time to paint the wood perfectly. One of the most important parts in Kachina creation is the mask. All Kachina are depicted wearing a mask of some sort, and it is always painted on.

Depending on the Kachina, one may leave it with just paint, however most Navajo Kachinas are adorned with cloths, furs (fake or real), gemstones, minerals, beading, rope, or sticks. These items are often used to depict the gender, purpose, and type of spirit the Kachina is made to be.

Once this is all done, the Kachina is complete. The Kachina can then be hung on a wall, displayed in an area, or used in a ceremony.