Commodification of devotional artworks diminishes their original meanings. Colonialism and institutional practices have for centuries eroded cultural identity associated to these traditional art forms and diluted their intended meanings. Looking at the history of the Hopi Kachina dolls and the greater significance of Kachinas to the Hopi people, we can better appreciate what has been overlooked by the average consumer of this art-form. We will explore some historical, commercial, institutional, and personal factors contributing to the current popular misunderstanding of this devotional art expression, see how we can facilitate the recovery of its meanings, and better understand why the Hopi are reappropriating their cultural identity.

Photo By Mario Perron

Description of my art piece 

Imagine a solid, pale piece of wood, light and smooth to the touch; ungiving to any pressure my hand can apply. Standing 14” x 3”x 4”, it’s carved from a single tree branch or root; sturdy on its flat bottom; the upward reaching lines of the double-figured sculpture follow the grain of the wood. The figures stand back to back, one leaning slightly on the other. As we move the sculpture around to see all sides, we get the feeling it wants to corkscrew clockwise and skyward. There are geometric patterns painted on the faces and bodies, in varying shades of blue, red, green, yellow, and white. Hair, feather designs, and lines between colours are burned black into the wood and stand in strong contrast against the lighter, painted pigmentations. The faces are stylized masks and both figures are draped in colourful blankets. In considering these markings, both appear to represent connected deities in the Hopi cannon, possibly the Shalako & Zuni Rain Priest together.1 There’s a mournful quality to the faces, indicated by the forward tilting of the heads, however, this is a personal impression that contradicts the joyful meaning of these dolls. 

Looking at the underside of the sculpture, we see written: “longhair Derrick Yazzle Navajo”. An initial search on the Heard Museum website, where this sculpture was purchased, revealed very little. The artist name was not there, but the descriptors “longhair” and “Navajo” revealed a surprise. This piece was named for the style of hair on the figures heads, not the deities it represented. It also revealed the first glimpse at how this work is an example of appropriation. It was carved by a Navajo craftsperson, not a Hopi carver. In her LA Times article: “Kachina-Doll Feud Divides Two Tribes”, Julie Cart gives an example of how easily consumers can become contributors to appropriation by blindly accepting commodification of inauthentic work.2 In this case, the museum was selling Kachina dolls made by a competing tribe of indigenous people; the Hopi weren’t benefiting from the process and even more angry at the poor quality of the “knockoffs”.3 How can a consumer know the difference when a seemingly trusted source (ie: the Heard Museum) didn’t do all they could to emphasize the distinction between Hopi originals & Navajo kitsch? The first answer belongs to the consumer who must do due diligence on what they wish to consume.

What is a kachina?

A Kachina is “a spirit of the invisible forces of life”.4 Frank Waters delivers a comprehensive history of the Hopi and reveals multiple meanings of the Kachinas. The use of the singular in “a spirit” relates to the fact that Kachinas were originally spiritual beings, not physical representations. Early in his retelling of the Hopi creation story, he explains how the dolls started as devotions to focus ones prayers to the guiding spirits of their tribes. Each tribe had a different spirit guide, most often represented by some natural phenomenon or perceived animal virtue.5 Each was originally and only carved by a tribal leader; which Waters alternately describes as elders, wise persons, or priests-shamans.6 The reason for there being so many different types of dolls is intertwined with the nomadic origins of the Hopi people. The ‘Creator’ gifted the Hopi with new spirit guides throughout their journey, and as the tribes split apart and/or rejoined after more wandering around the known world, more Kachinas came into the Hopi story. Eventually, these became physical representations of their rich oral histories, and aids to telling their creation and morality stories, as well as symbols for individual tribes.7

In most modern collections and publications, Kachina dolls are often seen in action poses, dancing and playing musical instruments.8 They are often painted in questionably bright and modern colours, and have elaborate dress and body makeup on the figures, depicting the “various Hopi Kachina ceremonies that occur between the months of December and July each year.”9

However, as discussed in Cart’s article, that doesn’t prove authenticity.10 If one were to read Bromberg’s chapter on the Kachina doll and legend too quickly, they would easily miss the lack of emphasis between Hopi carved ceremonial dolls and those made by the Navajo for commercial gain.11. At this moment in time, a collector must look for authenticate provenance in the same way they would any other work of art, or simply choose the piece for a personal aesthetic pleasure.

In Stuart Hall’s article, “Modernity – An Introduction to Modern Societies”12 we can grasp a better understanding of why the Hopi are so fierce in their desire to reappropriate their heritage and their art-form. The Kachina images are part of the fabric of their cultural identity. The Kachinas are symbols of a long oral history that give visual reference to the narrative of their nation. The dilution of meaning caused by commodification of these symbols negatively impacts that identity. Their genesis story connects them intimately to the land and offers them traditions they can call uniquely their own.13 For the Hopi, this remains a spiritual art practice and is inextricably part of their identity. It is their artistic voice. 

Can Kachina dolls be considered art? 

Terry Barrett offers the following definitions that might answer this question14:narrative, semiotic, and kitsch. The Kachina figures are intertwined with their oral history and moral compass.15 Each tells a narrative of who they were and how they see themselves. The figures are often decorated with a multitude of symbols “articulating and conveying meanings” unique to each one.16 While Aristotle’s interpretation of Realism would not call identify them as art; his aesthetic definition of art does apply to Kachinas. “Although art is imitation for Aristotle, he thinks that the artist does not simply copy nature, but celebrates it by finding the universal or archetypal, representing an amalgamation of the best that nature provides.”17 Given that Kachinas dolls are icons created to celebrate the ideals of their natural world, this Hopi art form is, at least philosophically, art, but is it also kitsch?

What diminished the meaning of such artworks?

In order for importance the answer would be tourism, followed by imitation.18 In 1992, The National Museum of American History of the Smithsonian curated an exhibit on Native American arts since the influx of the first colonizers in the sixteenth century. What they found led them to nickname the exhibit “500 Years of Tourism”.19 The exhibit showed how touristic curiosity bumped up the global markets for so-called native arts and “Hopi Katsinam have been imitated and exploited by their immediate neighbours as well as by manufactures halfway around the world.”20  After five hundred years, this habit has become practice and well intended buyers seeking beautiful reminders of their trips to the South-West become part of the systemic problem. My doll is an example of this challenge. My Kachina was bought from an institution recognized for its expertise in Amerindian Arts and culture; advice was gathered from a curator at the museum and the his recommended books on the subject matter. My intention was of getting an authentic Native American artwork, and to focus my choice between the hundreds on sale at the museum. In the end, it is an artwork made by an authentic native American, but it isn’t a Hopi craftsperson. The ultimate responsibility for contributing to an act of appropriation falls on the consumer, but one needs to ask what role the institution must also take in changing this injustice.

What role do museums have in honouring the authenticity of traditional art forms? 

According to Fraser, the answer isn’t as simple and pointing our fingers at the museums for the solution. “It’s not a question of being against the institution: We are the institution. It’s a question of what kind of institution we are, what kind of values we institutionalize, what forms of practice we reward, and what kinds of rewards we aspire to.”21 Consumers, critics, curators, art educators, and the museum/galleries all make up the art institution. We all must all play a part in this situation. Critics must draw attention to inaugurations and omissions made by museums; consumers must seek question and seek further information outside the source of sale; art educators must continue to develop culturally sensitive curricula that enhances awareness and deepens our understanding of commodified, misappropriated, and stereotyped cultures.22


Five hundred years of tourism have normalized the colonial disregard for traditional art expressions connected to cultural identity. Consumer demand has fostered the dilution of the original meanings by incentivizing the cheap reproduction of these icons outside their original communities and without the spiritual context originally devoted to them. Through our acknowledgement of being part of the art institution, we now have a greater awareness of how our consumption choices can change the other parts of the arts institution and return meaning to these artworks. The Hopi, like so many indigenous peoples are reclaiming their traditions and the artistic expressions of their cultures. As art teachers, art ambassadors, and art consumers, our role in this process is to continue being culturally responsive in what we share and what we consume. This Navajo made, Hopi Kachina knockoff will remain as a reminder of habits that can and will continue to change. 

FootNotes & EndNotes

  • 1. Shalako Kachina Doll: Types of Native American Kachina Dolls: Alltribes (last updated 2019).
  • 2. Julie Cart, “Kachina-Doll Feud Divides Two Tribes”: in Los Angeles Times. (Los Angeles: LA Times, Aug. 25, 1998).
  • 3. Ibid.
  • 4. Frank Waters, Book of The Hopi (New York: Viking Penguin, 1977), page 341.
  • 5. Waters, Book of The Hopi, 7-27.
  • 6. Ibid.
  • 7. Ibid.
  • 8. Erik Bomberg, The Hopi Approach to the Art of Kachina Doll Carving ( West Chester: Schiffer Publishing Ltd., 1986), pages 34-36.
  • 9. Jon T. Erickson, Kachinas: An Evolving Hopi Art Form? (Phoenix: The Heard Museum, 1977), page 9.
  • 10. Ibid.
  • 11. Bomberg, The Hopi Approach to the Art of Kachina Doll Carving, 34-36.
  • 12. Stuart Hall, “Narrating the Nation: An Imagined Community,” Modernity: An Introduction to Modern Societies ed. by Stuart Hall et al. (London: Blackwell Publishers, 1996), 613-615
  • 13. Frank Waters, Book of The Hopi (New York: Viking Penguin, 1977), pages 7-27.
  • 14. Terry Barrett, Why Is That Art?: Aesthetics And criticism Of Contemporary Art, 2nd ed. ( New York: Oxford university Press, 2012), pages 237-239.
  • 15. Frank Waters, Book of The Hopi (New York: Viking Penguin, 1977), pages 7-27.
  • 16. Barrett, Why Is That Art?: Aesthetics And criticism Of Contemporary Art, 2nd ed., 237-239.
  • 17. Ibid, 22.
  • 18. Zena Pearlstone, Katsina: Commodified And Appropriated images of Hopi Supernaturals (Los Angeles: UCLA Fowler Museum of Cultural History, 2001), pages 8-9.
  • 19. Ibid, 9.
  • 20. Ibid, 8.
  • 21. Andrea Fraser, “From the Critique of Institutions to an Institution of Critique,” Artforum (September 2005), pages 100 – 106.
  • 22. A. Lai: Culturally Responsive: Art Education in a Global Era. Art Education, 65(5), (2012), 18-23.

Bibliography & References

Barrett, Terry. Why Is That Art?: Aesthetics And criticism Of Contemporary Art, 2nd ed. New York: Oxford university Press, 2012.

Bomberg, Erik. The Hopi Approach to the Art of Kachina Doll Carving. West Chester: Schiffer Publishing Ltd., 1986.

Cart, Julie. “Kachina-Doll Feud Divides Two Tribes”: in Los Angeles Times. Los Angeles: LA Times, Aug. 25, 1998. Retrieved from

Erickson, Jon T., Kachinas: An Evolving Hopi Art Form? Phoenix: The Heard Museum, 1977.

Fraser, Andrea. “From the Critique of Institutions to an Institution of Critique,” Artforum, September 2005

Hall, Stuart. “Narrating the Nation: An Imagined Community,” Modernity: An Introduction to Modern Societies ed by Stuart Hall et al, London: Blackwell Publishers, 1996

Lai, A. Culturally Responsive: Art Education in a Global Era. Art Education, 65(5), (2012). 18-23.

Pearlstone, Zena. Katsina: Commodified And Appropriated images of Hopi Supernaturals. Los Angeles: UCLA Fowler Museum of Cultural History, 2001.

Shalako Kachina Doll: Types of Native American Kachina Dolls: Alltribes (last updated 2019). Retrieved from

Waters, Frank. Book of The Hopi. New York: Viking Penguin, 1977.

Zena Pearlstone, “Hopi Doll Look-Alikes: An Extended Definition of Inauthenticity,” in The American Indian Quarterly, Vol 35, #4. Nebraska: University of Nebraska press, Fall 2011.

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