Kachina masks are an important part of Hopi Indian ritual still performed today. You can make masks and buy the Kachina dolls so valued by the children of the Hopi community and feel a part of ancient Native American culture and tradition.
Use of Kachina Masks
The Hopi, native to Arizona, look to the Kachina spirits to renew the land each year and guarantee water for another season. Ceremonies honoring the Kachina take place from the winter solstice until July.
The Kachina masks are worn by men and accompanied by elaborate costumes and body paint. So adorned, a man becomes the Kachina spirit (there are more than two hundred) he represents. The spirits are invisible, but this representation brings them into the community and makes them a visual symbol of hope and sustenance.
The Power of Kachina Masks
The mask is the most important aspect of the Kachina ceremony. Traditionally made of leather or wood, the mask is seen as a living thing and even fed sacred food. When worn, they bring the spirit directly into the village.
Types of Kachina Masks
There are several types of masks, all of whose shapes and colors have deep significance. There is a half mask worn over the eyes, a round mask, a sack mask, and a helmet mask, which is the most common. Animal features like ears, snouts and horns are attached separately and most of the masks also sport feather headdresses.
The colors used in painting the masks refer to the direction from which the Kachina came: yellow is north or northwest, blue-green is west or southwest, red is south or southeast, white is east or northeast, all of them together are the zenith, or "up" and black is the nadir, or "down."
There are also symbols painted on the masks that have significance and help identify the nature of the particular spirit. These include animal and bird tracks; celestial symbols like clouds, lightning, sun, moon or stars; plant symbols like corn, flowers or cactus; a pair of vertical lines under the eyes to indicate the footprint of a warrior; an inverted V over the mouth to indicate an official; and phallic symbols to represent fertility.
Making and Viewing Masks
Unfortunately, ancient Kachina and Aztec masks do not survive, as the masks were made of biodegradable materials and were worn until they disintegrated. One can get a sense of these masks by viewing pottery and other objects made by the Hopi that depict Kachina ceremonies. Museums in the Southwest will have a few masks on display, but as the masks are still very much an integral part of Hopi culture, they are usually kept in the villages where they are made and used.
For this same reason, proper Kachina masks are not available for sale, although the odd one may occasionally show up on eBay. These masks are a living part of a culture, not something worn for Halloween. However, you can buy things like tiles that depict a Kachina at BluJay, an Arizona-based site. Taos Blue also has a mask on offer, but this is made by an artist, not the Hopi.
One of the best ways to really experience Hopi masks is to visit an interactive museum in the Southwest where you can learn about the masks and then try to make one yourself. Even though it is not a part of your own culture, a homemade approach is an interesting way of understanding this ancient and still very current and vibrant spiritual world.
You can also buy Kachina dolls, which are traditionally given to children to teach them about the spirits. These dolls have fascinated non-Hopi people almost as much as the masks, and have been popular collector items for years, not just because they are beautiful, but because they allow one to have a real sense of a very different people and world.