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The kachinas: an alien intelligence, but not as we know it

For centuries, the Hopi of Arizona have been intimately liaising with beings from the Otherworld. The kachinas still visit the Hopi Mesas on an annual basis and their presence continues to set out the agenda of Hopi society.

Philip Coppens



In July 1947, an alien craft allegedly crash-landed in Roswell, New Mexico. If it occurred, it was not the first of its kind: the region of New Mexico and Arizona has a history of “alien contacts” that goes back hundreds if not thousands of years. The beings in questions are known as “kachinas”; they are not extra-terrestrial as such, but definitely otherworldly.
An extensive collection of 400 kachina dolls can be seen in the Heard Museum in Phoenix; they were donated by the controversial Republican politician Barry Goldwater. Each doll looks different and has specific characteristics; each represents a different element or entity that has entered the Hopi world at some point in their history. And when you look at the Eototo kachina doll in the Museum of Northern Arizona, you find the creature has much in common with LEGO figures. Then again, just like LEGO, kachina dolls were there for children be educated in the ways of the Otherworld and how it interacted with ours.

Amongst the Native Americans, the Hopi have a special place. Thousands of people would like to visit their religious ceremonies, and thousands of tourists return home from Arizona with a kachina doll.
The kachina dolls are made from kaolin clay, meant to be hung from beams or walls in the home. They are white in colour and the basic shape is painted to show a head, arms, folded over a kilt, which is representing rain. Tradition argues that carving the “tihu” should be done by men, but today, women are involved in their manufacture, if only for selling them to tourists. Indeed, in what is likely to be a rush for finance, rather than heritage, tribal councils even tried to copyright the word kachina, but failed to do so.
Though the kachina dolls are often identified with the Hopi deities, this is highly inaccurate: one should not confuse the dolls with the kachina themselves. The dolls are merely props and many have fallen for the mistake, to take the prop for the god.
One might argue that their closest parallel is the voodoo doll or the Egyptian ushabti – though one needs to de-cinematise these artefacts in order to appreciate their true role and function. Indeed, one of the reasons that many of the ceremonies of the Hopi are now closed to outsiders is because a Marvel comic had characterised the kachina as violent avengers.

The kachina themselves – rather than the dolls – are largely described as “spirit messengers”, whereas some believe they might represent the spirit of the dead – if there were a difference. The Hopi state that at one time in the past, the kachina deities visited the Mesas in person, but that they now do so in the form of masked dancers.
Whereas kachina dolls are sold and hung from beams or walls, the real deities are surrounded with far greater respect. The Hopi deities live on the San Francisco Mountains, though are present amongst the Hopi for part of the year. As such, the religious year is divided into two parts.
The deities arrive at the Hopi Mesas in the form of rain-bearing clouds and normally arrive in early February for the Powamuya ceremony, or Bean Dance. The Hopi do indeed believe that in the past, the deities literally walked amongst them, but that today, their presence resides in those selected to wear a mask; it is the mask that transforms the Hopi individual into a “possessed” entity, very much like Jim Carrey in the movie “The Mask” – though it is clear that, just like with the voodoo dolls, the evil and negative connotations that have been introduced in these movies are for entertainment value only.

Three main ceremonies are performed by and for the gods –katsinam – during their stay in the villages: Soyalangwu, a winter solstice ceremony held in December; the already mentioned Powamuya in February, when the katsinam are asked to appear; and Niman, the home-going ceremony, after the summer solstice. Between Powamuya and Niman, the Hopi perform several more dances in honour of the deities. Early in the year they are held in underground ceremonial chambers called kivas, but as spring arrives, the dances move out onto the plazas, where they last from morning until dusk.
The fraternities in charge of the summer dances meet in mid-winter for ceremonial smoking and the planting of prayer plumes. In late November, a chief kachina, Soyalkatsina, begins the kachina season by walking along the trail into the village like a weary old man or someone who has had too much sleep, singing sacred songs in a low voice. He then opens the main kiva, signalling that it is time for the katsinam to come out. Their emergence re-enacts the arrival of the Hopi into the present, Fourth World.
Each December, a runner climbs to a shrine in the San Francisco Peaks, where he scatters a meal and plants plumes that are to be brought back in July, by another runner, for the final festival, Niman, linked with the harvest. At the harvest festival, the deities return to the underworld, through the San Francisco Peaks. Interestingly, it is claimed that the seasons in the Underworld are one season behind.

As mentioned, the actual return of the deities to the Hopi Mesas is celebrated at Powamu, the Bean-Planting Ceremony in February. Each matriarch receives a bundle of fresh bean sprouts to plant for the coming year. The festival lasts eight days and concludes with dancing, which takes place in the nine kivas of the mesa. Everyone wears fresh mud from the sacred spring and each job of plastering has been signed with the print of the slim hand of the girl who did it.
All Hopi babies receive a tihu – a kachina doll – at their first Niman ceremony, while the girls receive further dolls at each Powamuya and Niman ceremony, up until or near marriageable age, although married women sometimes still get them from their husbands. The dolls are created as a teaching tool given to these children and is presented to them by one of the masked dancers. Boys and girls are normally properly initiated into society between the age of six to ten, when they are allowed to participate in the performances and discover that the masked dancers are their own relatives – very much like finding out who Santa Claus really is – though I, of course, never said that.
There is a clear relationship between the deities and the kachina dolls, the latter representing aspects of the former. Hopi katsinam can be male or female, and represent plants, animals, insects, human qualities, the creative force of the sun, and even death. Some are demons who frighten children into behaving properly; most are clan ancestors and beneficent beings. They are messengers who accept Hopi gifts and prayers for health, fertility, and rain and carry them back to the gods. Their role as rainmakers is particularly important to the Hopi. The deities are present, either in the statues, or the sacred masks. Unlike the dolls, the masks are sacred objects and the Hopi have successfully petitioned to remove them from museum displays.
The katsinam is and can therefore be a spirit of any kind – very much on par with the ever growing list of Catholic saints that can be implored. The masks could be compared to the Christian holy relics. But just like Roman Catholic statues, no sacred power is invested in the kachina doll. Unlike Roman Catholic statues, the kachina dolls are not used in ceremonies, nor are they preserved in the kiva. They are simply… dolls, so that children play with them and learn how to interact with the various spirits and otherworldly entities that are part of the tribe’s daily life.
There are nevertheless sacred statues preserved in the kiva, known as wu’ya or tiponi. The wu’ya is a clan deity, and a tiponi is a fetish of stone or wood, representing the deity. Unlike the kachina dolls, these are seldom brought out in to the open, their use normally reserved for ritual use inside the kiva.
Indeed, in 1960, the so-called “Vernon man” was discovered. Nine inches high, carved from sandstone and painted with vertical stripes, this statue was found in a crypt within a kiva. Though popularly also labelled a kachina, the Hopi identify it as a wu’ya or tiponi, a clan deity.

The kachina doll cult is known to have definitely existed by 1300 AD. Some argue it came from the Zuni Pueblo to the West of the Hopi Mesas, others argue that it came from the Rio Grande, others that it came from the Mimbres cult of the south, and/or that it developed in Mexico. In short: no-one knows. Details of the paintings on Awatovi murals, an ancestral Hopi site, show costumed and masked figures as separated elements or interacting in scenes. But the role and iconography of the dolls does strongly echo certain Aztec deities such as Tlaloc, the god of rain, and Quetzalcoatl, the feathered serpent, who was also the bringer of rain and corn. Seeing the kachina are specifically linked with the rain…
Recent discoveries in Chaco Canyon have also suggested that the kachina cult was introduced by cannibalistic warrior refugees from the south. It is clear that this archaeological discovery – or at least the conclusion drawn from it – has created controversy within the Native American community.
Wherever it came from, representations of masked beings that have the characteristics of the kachina appear on murals in kivas that date to as early as 1350. Situated at Hopi and Homol'ovi on the Hopi Mesas themselves, it underlines the length of time in which the cult has been present amongst the Hopi people.

Though all deities are equal, some are more popular than others, the most famous for outside is Kokopelli, a fertility deity, usually depicted as a humpbacked flute player (often with a huge phallus and feathers or antenna-like protrusions on his head). Like most fertility deities, Kokopelli presides over both childbirth and agriculture, but he is also a trickster god and represents the spirit of music.
Interestingly, Kokopelli is one of the most easily recognized figures found in the petroglyphs and pictographs of the Southwest, the earliest known petroglyph depicting him dating to about 1000 AD. It underlines that there is – at least in the case of some deities – a tradition that has spanned a millennium.
Just how old the cult truly is, no-one knows. In the dances, the Kokopilua kachina dancer sings a song in a language so ancient that not a word of it is understood by the modern Hopi themselves, who know only that their deities have accompanied them throughout their migrations… and continue to visit them annually at the Mesas.
Outsiders want to experience the Hopi ceremonies, but are unlikely to truly capture the essence of the activities. A Hopi Indian has been raised, from birth, in a tradition, surrounded by dolls that represented otherworldly creatures that are nevertheless part of their world and daily life. These entities did not crash-land just one day somewhere; these entities have been with them for thousands of years, and continue to interact with the Hopi in a manner that only a Hopi can truly understand.

This article appeared in FENIX Magazine Issue 17.