Antique Detective: Collectible kachina dolls have a history

You have probably seen kachina dolls if you have visited crafts shows and museums in the Southwest. You may have seen the colorful figures offered at auctions around the country. Chances are, if you are new to the collecting field, you wondered what they were.

When they come to auction, prices can range from a few hundred dollars to more than a thousand dollars. As more Native American artisans become recognized and their works collected, prices continue to rise for contemporary as well as early 20th century pieces.

kachina_10 QU 03-08.jpgMade by Hopi and Zuni in the likenesses of the supernatural guardians of the tribes, they intrigued tourists who traveled to the Southwest as far back as the 1930s. Tourists who witnessed ceremonies where adult males represented kachinas in song and dance wanted souvenirs. The small dolls, measuring from 8 inches to 22 inches, began to be collected.

kachina_7 QU 03-08.jpgUntil recently, little was known of their history. However, in the 1930s, anthropologists began studying the dolls, learning what they could from the Hopi. Among the things they learned is that the kachina was given to little girls, carved by their biological father, as one of their first objects with spiritual importance. As infants they received several flat dolls, with featureless heads.

As the child grew, the dolls or “tihu” became more realistic and detailed. By the time the girl was in her teens she no longer received dolls for good behavior. Supposedly her rewards would be in the form of prosperity and health.

The dolls were thought to represent unseen spirits who possessed spiritual powers: the spirits appeared in the actual world as plants, birds, animals and clouds. Wolves and eagles were popular. There are hunter and guard kachinas, warriors and mud head clowns in many forms. One of the oldest types is the buffalo kachina. The costumes were made of buffalo hide, with and without the wool. They were topped with a large, wooden buffalo head. Sometimes Kachinas represented neighboring tribes.

Though dolls have been discovered dating to the early 19th century, examples of their likenesses have been found on Kiva murals and ancient pottery dating to the late 1300s.

CLUES: Contemporary kachina artists sign their works and many sell for several thousand dollars. These are often decorated with acrylics. And, many of these contemporary carvers create sculptured kachinas that rely on the natural form of the cottonwood root and the look of the graining. Other new artists are working in the old turn-of-the-century style using tools of that time.

Hopi QU 03-08.jpgCarved figures made in the 1930s and ’40s had carved fingers, and elaborately carved and painted headdresses. Garments were made of cloth and leather. Belts and sashes were painted with watercolors, not made of materials. If you are interested in collecting, Official Price Guide to Native American Art by Dawn Reno is a must. It is published in paperback by House of Collectibles.