Kachina, or katsina, is a Southwestern Pueblo Indian word meaning spirit father or life. Kachinas represent the spirit of the gods who personify nature: clouds, sky, storms, trees, etc. They function as protective supernatural beings who can help humans if they are asked properly. They also represent the spirits of good people who die and become clouds, bringing much-needed rain. They serve as entertainers and discipliners of children. Kachinas look after the interests of humans, serve as intermediaries to the gods, and can bestow good fortune, such as fertility, power, and long life.
The Hopis possess the largest number of kachinas, which can number in the hundreds at any one time, and are constantly changing. If a specific kachina doesn’t perform the job it is requested to do, it is abandoned and a new kachina is added to the pantheon. About thirty “mong” or chief kachinas perform specific annual ceremonies, including Sotuqnang-u, the god of the sky; Masao, the god of the earth, Kwanitaqa, the one-horned god and guardian of the Underworld; and Alosaka, the two-horned god of reproduction. There are also clown, racerunner, parade, and numerous dance kachinas.
Kachinas visit Hopi villages every year beginning in February after descending from their home on top of the San Francisco Mountains near Flagstaff, Arizona. The Powamu, or Bean Dance Ceremony, is designed to ask for plenty of water, good weather, abundant crops, and peaceful, prosperous lives; the Kachina Spirits serve as intermediaries to the Creator. The kachinas remain in the villages until July, after the Ninman or Going Home Ceremony.
Both male and female kachinas are personified by costumed men–never women–wearing elaborate masks with headdresses, or as carved and painted dolls. In either incarnation, the kachina represents a specific spirit whose name is never spoken aloud. Hopi dancers believe that by wearing the mask of a kachina, they actually become that kachina during a ceremony. They usually carry rattles made from gourds and branches of Douglas fur, and tortoise shell rattles and sleigh bells attached to one leg. Kachinas carved from cottonwood roots are carved into costumed, feathered dolls and used as learning devices to teach Indian children about each kachina spirit, or they serve as fertility charms for women.
The Hopi religion teaches that in the beginning, kachinas lived with people and taught them useful skills such as hunting and farming. They were able to bring all-important rain to the arid Hopi lands by dancing in the fields. The people asked them to take the souls of the recently dead back with them to the San Francisco Mountains; but the kachinas wearied of that task, and they eventually stopped visiting the villages, saying that they would rather be impersonated by humans. This led to the kachina cults of men, who now dress in costumes and masks and dance at Hopi ceremonies. Another myth tells how kachinas stored the sun and moon in a box. One day a coyote stole the box, opened it out of curiosity, and accidentally let them escape into the sky to help humans.
The Zuni also have a large number of kachinas whom they call “koko,” or the spirits of men who come as ducks to bring rain and supervise hunts. Some Zuni kachinas live in the mountains, but most are found in a large village at the bottom of the mythical Lake of the Dead in Listening Spring Lake at the junction of the Zuni and Little Colorado Rivers. The Zunis toss offerings of food into the Lake, from where they are transported to the Lake of the Dead. The koko occasionally leave their lake village and visit humans in the form of clouds.
The first koko were children who drowned after people emerged from the underworld, as well as people who died and returned to the underworld. The newly deceased or long dead ancestors can also become kokos and bring good health, rain and abundant crops. Women are allowed to join their husbands in the underworld, but their children’s spirits are transformed into water monsters, or uwanammi, who have the power to bring rain.
The Catholic and Zuni religions intermingle at the mission church of Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe on the grounds of Zuni Pueblo. There, pictures of life-size kachinas are displayed just above the Stations of the Cross. Zuni Pueblo is one of the few that allows outsiders to watch some of the kachina ritual dances, although photographing them is not allowed.
Shalako is a Zuni ceremony occurring during the first week of December. The participants have been practicing all year to perform their duties, seven new houses have been built to welcome the Shalakos (the Giant Couriers of the Rainmakers) and the Longhorns (Rain Gods of the North), and an enormous amount of food is prepared for both residents and visitors. Shalako brings the old year to a close and welcomes the new year, and asks for rain, the propagation of plants and animals, and the health and well being of its participants. It is also a reenactment of various important tribal myths.
The Little Fire God kachina descends from the hills and begins the ceremony, followed by the Shalakos, who are accompanied by Longhorns, Mudheads, and many other kachinas and priests making their way to their respective houses. Lengthy prayers are recited, after which comes a resting period before the food is served and the dancing begins. The kachinas are ten feet tall and resemble birds; they dance rhythmically and clack their beaks together. Near sunrise, the head Longhorn priest offers a prayer for the good fortune of the villagers in the coming year. A race takes place on the second day. Each participant runs from one end of the river to the other, making sure not to trip or fall or he will bring misfortune to the pueblo. After the race, the kachinas return to the hills, and preparations for the next year’s festivities are immediately begun.
The Hopis produce kachina dolls for the tourist and collector market, but Zuni kachina dolls, which in contrast to Hopi dolls are often carved from pine and have long bodies with movable arms, are not available for sale.
by Ardeth Baxter