Katchinas come to life on April Fools Day



Hopi-Clowns.jpg Illustrations of clowns from: “Hopi Kachina Tradition Following the Sun and the Moon.”

I awakened this morning thinking about the sacred clowns that belong to the Hopi and the Pueblo people. These unmistakable black and white striped clowns are one of about 400 – 500 different Kachina spirits. Clown figures are present at many of the pueblo dances where they mimic individuals and help keep the people away from the dancers while interacting with individuals in the audience.

My first Pueblo experience with katchinas occurred at one of the winter dances. It was unnerving to watch as two appeared as black and white masked individuals, dressed in animal skins complete with coyote tails who struck the ground repeatedly with whips. One made a peace sign to me. Thrown off guard I had no idea how to respond. When I mirrored his action he laughed uproariously but also struck his whip on the ground! These “Whipper” or guard katchinas are scary individuals that are impossible to ignore.

The origin of kachinas is unknown. There is some evidence that points to a Mesoamerican origin; the similarity between the Hopi and the Aztec culture is striking. There are a few archeological hints that indicate that katchinas were present by the time the Hopi settled in Arizona in 1100 AD. The first katchina masks and dancers appear in rock art around 1325 AD.

By the 15th century masked dancers and carved katchina dolls had become part of the culture of various Puebloan tribes in Arizona and New Mexico. The masked katchina dancers impersonated the spirits who originally brought rain for the corn, beans and squash but eventually left the people and returned to the underworld (some Pueblo people believe the holy people return to the mountains).

When each dancer “becomes” one of the many kachinas, – chief/ elders who take part in the nine day ceremonies, warrior/guards, ogres/disciplinary function, runners/race with the men during dances, clowns/entertainers, and female katchinas/ mothers and sisters of other katchina spirits (all portrayed by men) are the six general categories of katchina spirits – it is believed that the spirit of the kachina portrayed enters that person’s body during the sacred rites that occur in the kiva before the ceremonial dances begin. To protect the individual from the power of these sacred forces many dancers wear a bear fetish under their regalia.

Katchina dolls are given to young girls by the katchina dancers. These dolls are hung on the walls to educate all the children about the functions of these powerful spirit beings (the boys receive bow and arrows from the katchinas instead of a doll). Ironically, early Christians perceived the dolls to be manifestations of the devil.

Although we have seen that there are both male and female katchinas only one katchina is actually danced by a woman. These generally all male ceremonies suggest to me that for the Hopi, although the clans may be matrilineal in terms of lineage, all spiritual power belongs to the men, strengthening the theory that the kachinas may have originated in Aztec culture. All other Pueblo cultures are also patrilineal.

According to the Hopi oral tradition these mostly benevolent spirits emerged from the underground with the Hopi people when Spider Grandmother caused a hollow reed to grow up towards the sky. The reed emerged from the sipapu into the Fourth World. The people were able to climb the reed and enter the present world escaping from darkness. Today Spider Grandmother seems to have been replaced with Tawa, the sun god.

The katchinas (more correctly called katsinas) emerged with the people and taught them how to hunt and grow crops, how to behave properly, and how to heal illness by collecting and using plants and herbs. These spirits may represent virtually anything from the sun, mountains, clouds or rain, animals, trees and plants to crops like squash, beans and corn. Sometimes they manifest as flowers like morning glories or squash blossoms. Animal katchinas like deer, white bear and great horned owl act as advisors, healers, and educators. They teach the people specifically how to use herbs for healing and how to avoid danger. All 400 or 500 katchinas provide guidance of some kind. Each one has a particular set of characteristics and a distinctive personality.

Katchinas appear just after the winter solstice and remain with the people until the crops are harvested in early August at after which they return to the spirit world underground. While staying with the Hopi/pueblo people the katchinas help to bring precious rain to the desert so that the crops will flourish. The Niman or farewell Hopi dance of the katchinas occurs in July and is one of their nine – day festivals that includes sacred rites in the kivas and a public dance at its close. Messengers are sent on long journeys for sacred water, pine boughs and other objects. In other pueblos a similar dance takes place.


I am finishing this article on a day when the rains continue to fall sporadically gifting the red earth with precious moisture. I think this year the katchinas must be working very hard, because the spring (female) rains have turned our desert a thousand shades of sage green.

Above: “Warriot Woman” (danced by a man) courtesy of Bruce Nelson’s Katchina Collection.