Skip to main content

Katsina Carvings : Katsina Carvings

This is a guide to katsina carvings, in regards of the new display of 32 katsina carvings on loan from Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art, installed in Bizzell Memorial Library August 2013-May 2014, and then reinstalled in October 2014 - present.

Katsina Carvings by heather ahtone, Curator of Native American & Non-Western Art, Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art

            Presenting art from the Hopi tribal community in Oklahoma is both exciting and challenging. The challenges include the varied levels of common knowledge existing among the museum’s local and regional audiences and the need for sensitive contextualization. In the Midwest, where the Hopi materials are recognizable but largely remain an unfamiliar visual vernacular, this exhibition provides a broad presentation of the katsinam figures that are an integral part of this incredibly rich and complex Hopi cultural paradigm.

            The Hopi katsina is part of the Southwest’s artistic signature.[1] That is to be expected from a tribal community that has been in northeastern Arizona since at least AD 1200s, speaking their own language (part of the Uto-Aztecan language family), with a highly developed social order that organizes itself according to matriarchal clans and ceremonial societies. Hopi material culture, largely baskets, textiles, and pottery, is marked by distinctive visual references to their katsina culture, both in design and purpose.[2] The use of color, geometric patterns, and line permeates across a variety of materials, creating a visual relationship between seemingly disparate forms in a manner that is distinctly Hopi.

            The relationship that the Hopi have with the katsinam is specifically tied to where the community lives in Hopituskwa, the broad expanse of land that encompasses their shrines and sacred sites, including the three mesas within Arizona’s Coconino and Navajo counties on 1.5 million acres. Hopi beliefs are guided by the katsinam who live in the region and actively visit the Hopi during their seasonal migrations. The Hopi credit the katsinam for guiding their survival against many forms of oppression, including living as an agriculturally based society in a location that receives less than ten inches of annual rainfall (sometimes as few as five inches).

          The katsinam provide the Hopi people with the blueprint for their aesthetic designs. Following the ritual and ceremonial practices, tribal artists use the same visual design elements that are guided by a strict protocol as a primary source for their other creative activities.[3] As Hopi men carve the katsina tihu, or effigy dolls, they are doing so to perpetuate their culture—to live as Hopi.[4] Within the traditional community, producing art used in rituals reflects the artist’s participation in the ceremonies. The same dolls that have entered the Native American art market as a commodity are still used as a didactic object to teach Hopi children traditional values and beliefs. In the twenty-first century, living in a capitalistic American society, the Hopi artisans, fortunately, can do this while also generating economic resources.

           The breadth of materials artists use to express the katsina culture reaches beyond the tihu, though these are most recognizable. Many of the designs used in Hopi textiles, basketry, ceramics, and jewelry are closely bound to the katsina iconography. For example, the artist’s material choice often serves a direct metaphorical purpose, reiterating the relationship between Hopi and the katsinam. Specifically, the tihu are carved only from cottonwood root, which is known to aggressively seek out deep-water sources supporting the great trees in Arizona’s high desert. The cottonwood root’s ability to locate water is a metaphor for the role the katsinam perform in bringing precipitation to the Hopi.

            Scholar and tribal leader, Alph H. Secakuku, in Following the Sun and Moon, describes the Hopi belief of the katsinam and their role within the community:

            The katsinam are the benevolent spirit beings who live among the Hopi for about a six-month period each year. They first arrive during Soyalwimi in December and begin to appear in greater number during the Powamuya ceremonial season (in February), and return to their spirit world after the Niman ceremony (in July). The Powamuya dramatizes the final stages of world creation, and calls upon the katsina spirit being to invoke substantial growth and maturity for all mankind. The katsina spirits are, therefore, the very important, meaningful, and beneficial counterpart in a relationship invaluable to the Hopi religious beliefs.[5]

            For many Western minds, understanding the katsinam as spiritual beings proves challenging due to the necessary belief in their seasonal transformation between the physical and metaphysical worlds. But for the Hopi, the katsinam actively offer a way of living that strives for peace, balance, and self-respect that, when practiced, benefits the entire world.[6] They follow these cultural practices, not because other options are not available to them, but because it has proven through centuries to be a manner of being by which they serve not only their own community but also humanity’s continuing need to seek balance with the earth. They follow the katsinam in the twenty-first century because, it could be argued, it is needed now more than ever.

            Within the katsina ceremonial cycle, the deities have their own given time to appear and a specific role to perform while present with the Hopi. There are so many katsinam, some have suggested as many as three hundred, that when presented in a broader and more general exhibition, the sheer number of deities can be overwhelming.[7]

            The role of the katsinam in the world of the Hopi is critical to their identity. The Hopi believe that they must follow the katsina teachings and guidance in order to survive. Further, they believe that the order the katsina offer is beneficial for humanity beyond their mesa home. The katsina culture teaches restraint, self-control, and humility as necessary virtues to be practiced in order to achieve a Hopi identity. Through the practice of these virtues, the culture creates the potential to apply them to the social, political, and religious structures by which all Hopi are governed. Emory Sekaquaptewa, noted Hopi scholar, has written that, “In this system a human being is more human the more he/she develops qualities of the heart/unctngwa that help to maintain social cohesion and a harmonious universe, the condition described in the Hopi language as suyanis'qatsi, ‘life of balance.’”[8]

         This exhibition has been prepared to provide visitors and readers the opportunity to gain an appreciation for the beautiful formal elements. As scholars and students at the Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art move forward in learning about this vibrant Native American art form, we hope to feature other katsinam in future exhibitions.


       -Excerpted from “Distinctly Hopi: considering the formal aesthetics of six Hopi kachinas” by heather ahtone, Neil David, Delbridge  Honanie, and Milland Lomakema. Hopituy:        Hopi Art from the Permanent Collection (Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art, Norman, OK.,2013). This catalogue is available at the Fine Arts Library and is for sale at MUSE, the FJJMA museum store: .



[1] As the FJJMA steps up to the task of caring for its ever-expanding collection of Native American art, the staff endeavors to maintain cultural sensitivity for the diverse tribal communities therein represented. In keeping with this commitment, and following intensive consultation with community members, the museum will use katsina when referencing the spiritual being specifically (katsinam is the plural) and tihu in reference to the carvings.

[2] Wesley Bernardini, “Identity as History: Hopi Clans and the Curation of Oral Tradition,” Journal of Anthropological Research 64, no. 4 (2008): 483–509.

[3] During the primary research for an exhibition presented at the FJJMA in 2013, Hopituy: Hopi Art from the Permanent Collections, the Hopi artists often expressed the importance of drawing a distinction between the wooden sculpture that could be identified as a kachina and those that were a “contemporary” sculpture, meaning that it did not follow the visual and cultural protocol guided by the katsinam, or spiritual beings that live among the Hopi. Many discussions ensued identifying the elements demanded by protocol, thus allowing that anything that did not follow protocol was artistic license and therefore could not be identified as a katsina.

[4] Similar to the rules of protocol guiding depictions of katsina, artistic license allows women to make carved dolls for market, though these materials could not be used for cultural ceremonies. Works by Hopi women are included in this exhibition for discussion.

[5] Alph H. Secakuku, Following the Sun and Moon: Hopi Kachina Tradition (Flagstaff, Ariz.: Northland Publishing, 1995), 3.

[6] Ibid., p. 100.

[7] Susanne and Jake Page, Hopi (New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1982), 66.

[8] Maria Glowacka and Emory Sekaquaptewa, “The Metaphorical Dimensions of Hopi Ethics,” Journal of the Southwest 51, no. 2 (Summer 2009): 178. The ethos that Sekaquaptewa eloquently describes is also why the Artist Hopid was formed in 1973. As Michael Kabotie wrote in their manifesto, “we are hoping that from the preservation of our traditions and from the interpretations of the Hopi Way in our art and paintings, a new direction can come for American spirituality.”  Using their art as a vehicle to share their cultural principles, the artists continue working towards their goal.