Lesson 10: Performing Knowledge: Teaching about the Spirit World: Katsina Traditions, Southwest U.S.

Summary and Objectives. As students study Katsina traditions of the Hopi of northern Arizona and New Mexico they will become more familiar with the general principles and details that serve to identify the spirits represented. They will consider the importance of corn among Hopi peoples and they will ponder notions of spiritual and environmental balance, as embodied in Hopi values and teachings. As part of this study students will

  • Explore Katsina traditions through visual analysis, story telling, and research.
  • Deepen their knowledge of the educational roles of dolls through discussion and artmaking activities.
  • Broaden their understanding of the importance of foods to the lifestyles and rituals of different cultures through research, discussion, and artmaking.
  • Explore water conflicts and the need for environmental balance as valued and taught by the Hopi.


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Lesson 10: Katsina Traditions Lesson Plan (PDF, 960 KB)

Background Information

Background Information

Pueblo Indians, including the Hopi, are descendents of prehistoric peoples who lived in northern Arizona and New Mexico fifteen hundred years ago. Today the Hopi live on three high windswept mesas in northern Arizona on land that is quite barren and dry. Hopi consider themselves caretakers of what they call the Fourth World and assume responsibilities for keeping all things on earth in balance and harmony. Each year benevolent spirits called Katsinam (Kachinas) come from their home in the San Francisco Peaks to take part in rituals that are important components of the Hopi religion.

They appear as impersonated spirits who perform rituals of song and dance. The ancestor spirits and spirit beings they portray are associated with clouds, rain, and other features of the natural world. The term, Katsina (sing.), refers to these personators as well as to hundreds of invisible spirit beings.

Hopi tradition explains how the Katsinam once visited in person, but now come as clouds down from the mountains or up from the earth. They first arrive close to the time of the winter solstice in late December, and they live among the Hopi for the next six months. During their stay, they present many dances, including these three main ceremonies: the winter solstice ceremony, Soyalangwu; the Powamuya in February; and following the summer solstice, the Niman, after which the Katsinam return to their home on the San Francisco Mountain peaks. While in the village their dances are performed by and for the Katsinam to help bring rain, promote the growth of corn and other crops, and increase the number of animals the Hopi depend on for survival.

The term Katsinam is also used to describe small, carved wooden dolls, although the Hopi call them tithu. The dolls, representing the same Katsina spirits, are given as gifts to young girls and women. They serve as teaching tools, reminders of Hopi history and beliefs, and sustainers of sacred knowledge, particularly now in the face of so many changes in the modern world.


About the Artist

When Katsinam became popular and highly collectible, the corps of artists changed. Traditionally, the only carvers of tithu were the fathers and uncles of the Hopi children to whom they were given. Today, artists comprise a wider sphere that includes Hopi who are not relatives of the recipients, along with Hopi women, and members of other tribes, some of whom carve Katsina-like figures to sell to eager buyers.

Suggested Activities

1. Spirits, Clouds, and Personators

Activity. The Katsinam spirits appear at ceremonies wearing masks, which the Hopi refer to as “friends.” These spirits serve as the inspiration for the carved representations of Katsina spirits called tithu. While the tithu are not considered to be sacred by the Hopi, the “friends” in the form of masks are among the most sacred Hopi possessions, never to be reproduced, given to non-Hopis, displayed, or sold for economic gain. Nevertheless, over the years a substantial number of Hopi “friends” have found their way into museum and private collections. The activities that follow focus on a study of carved tithu, not the masks or “friends” of the Hopi, which are sacred to them.

A Katsina spirit is identified by the specific shape of the face covering; the facial features; colors and patterns on the face, body and clothing; accessories and other items carried; and other ornamentation—often of feathers, leather, or fabric. Distinct behaviors, dance steps, gestures, and vocalizations characterize each Katsina spirit.

Some Katsinam are named for the roles they play: Warrior, Racer, Morning Singer, and Ogre Katsinam, and other Katsinam are named for their physical attributes (long-horned, left-handed). Some take their names from ancestors; weather and natural features (Cumulus Cloud Katsina, Making Thunder Katsina); birds (Eagle Katsina); animals (Lizard Katsina); insects (Cicada, Hornet Katsina; and plants (Prickly Pear Cactus Katsina, Squash Blossom Katsina). (Those representations that are bolded are illustrated in lesson Handout HOPI KATSINAM.)

Activity. Students may use the following list to locate some of the characteristics on images in this guide, on the tithu in the exhibition, and on dolls with which they are familiar. Guides such as Colton’s Hopi Kachina Dolls with a Key to their Identification (1959) give more details and clues to identifying a doll. Although the characteristics of Katsinam vary widely, some features are distinctive:

  • Face coverings (including full and half masks, helmet coverings, and circular masks built on yucca sifter baskets).
  • Features on the top and side of the head such as horns, bird wings, clumps of hair, feathers, and elaborately painted wooden tabletas.
  • Painted symbols including animal and bird tracks, and plant and celestial symbols. Vertical lines under eyes stand for the footprints of a warrior.
  • Eyes that may be painted as rounds, rectangles, or half-moons; or carved and attached to the face.
  • Mouths as painted shapes or as long lines with painted teeth. There may be a carved beak or snout.
  • Accessories or other attached material such as cornhusks, gourd rattles, Douglas fir branches.
  • Colors are symbolic of the spirit of an animal, plant, or object. The same Katsina may appear in different colors symbolic of the direction from which that spirit came.

Activity. Teachers of younger children may read (and share the dynamic illustrations of) Arrow to the Sun by Gerald McDermott, an adaptation of a Pueblo Indian tale. Do students recognize attributes of Katsinam in the story? They may illustrate their own original reinterpretation of a story or legend using bright colors and angular figures emulating McDermott’s style or portray the characters in a style particularly suitable to their story.

Activity. Older students may be interested in why this Native American culture was more successful than many in perpetuating the traditions and values of their ancestors. Consider, with the coming of Spanish religious and governmental authorities, how the relative isolation of the Hopi homeland has played a part in this process. Investigate the effects, in more recent times, of programs such as that of the federal government to relocate Native Americans from the pueblos and reservations
to cities.


2. Tithu as Teachers

As she plays with her dolls and sees them displayed on the walls of her home, the Hopi girl learns about her culture. She learns to recognize Katsinam and understand the significance of their appearance and their movements. The first doll a baby girl receives is flat, wooden, and made in one piece, which represents the Happy Mother Katsina with all the attributes of motherhood. As she gets older, especially as she approaches the time of marriage, a Hopi girl receives dolls that are three-dimensional and more elaborately designed. Each tihu (sing.) becomes a teacher of her people’s past and of present hopes and expectations. Girls are also given ogre dolls that are meant to promote proper behaviors and chastise any
bad ones.

Activity. Dolls perpetuate the history and teachings of many cultures and promote socialization as children play with them. Let students recall the importance or significance of dolls in their own lives. Japanese children display a miniature court of dolls for exhibition on Girls’ Day, play with Daruma dolls for good luck, and set paper dolls afloat to carry away bad fortune as reminders of Shinto cleansing practices. Among many African peoples dolls play roles in rituals, they can represent the spirits of deceased children, and serve to connect the present life with the spiritual world. Christians in many parts of the world honor the Holy Family with crèches and doll figures in observance of Christmas. And as children everywhere play with dolls and their counterpart action figures, they are learning and imitating actions of older people in their own world.

Students can bring to class the dolls that are important to them. It may be that the dolls are traditional in their own families, or they may play roles in, or be reminders of, their religious traditions.

Activity. Teachers are sometimes tempted to have students make their own versions of Katsina dolls. Since tithu, although not sacred themselves, are representative of spirits that are sacred, it would be more respectful to the Hopi to have your class make dolls with meaning for themselves. Provide a variety of materials (i.e., cloth, socks, clothespins, twigs, paper, wood, spools, clay, bone, feathers, cornhusks, dough, ingredients for papier mâché, etc.). Inspiration can come from a story in their reading books, a holiday celebration, or from other classroom experiences. As do the makers of the carved tithu, your students could make a doll to teach or illustrate a lesson—perhaps a story with a moral, perhaps a science or history fact recently learned.


3. Corn—An Act of Faith

“…and they say this is what we eat on this earth. And so you eat that too. You have come to this earth to eat this kind of food.

The grandmother feeds ground cornmeal to her Hopi grandchild in the exhibition video, “Teachings from the Spirit World.” The baby had spent her first nineteen days wrapped in a blanket, cared for by the elder women of the family while next to her were set one or two ears of perfectly formed corn, referred to as the child’s Mother and Grandmother. For centuries corn has sustained the people and at every ceremony it is an essential element.

At the first ceremonies in winter, Corn Katsinam appear, some carrying manos and metates for grinding corn, some carrying baskets of the grain. Accompanying a Katsina chief is Kokosori, his dark-painted body covered with spots of all colors of corn kernels. At the time of the spring ceremonies it is time to plant early corn and the women are busy shelling last year’s corn for cornmeal. Corn remains ritually important through the ceremonial season until the Niman or home-going ceremony when Katsinam leave for their spirit world in the San Francisco Mountains. At the public part of the Niman ceremony, Katsinam enter the plaza at sunrise, their arms full of the first green corn stalks of the year. They dance for the last time, receive offerings, and after the father of the Katsinam sprinkles the people with corn meal and spreads corn meal on a path for them to follow to the west, the spirits return to the spirit world, carrying the special prayers of the Hopi to the six directions of the Hopi world.

Activity. As corn is central to Hopi tradition, other foods are important to the lifestyles and rituals of other groups. Besides contributing foodway practices in their own backgrounds, students could research the historical and religious or cultural significance of, for example, rice in most of Asia, and beans in many parts of Europe and Latin America. Although they may or may not have equivalent spiritual value that corn has for the Hopi, foods specific to other regions of the United States and the world have their own place in people’s traditions, and students could investigate these.

Activity. Other Native American cultures celebrate this food with their own festivals, ceremonies, dances, games, and feasts. The class may do a comparative study of these, looking for similarities, or they may concentrate on the events of a particular group. Many communities hold the Green Corn Dance as a thanksgiving/renewal celebration. In Native Universe: Voices of Indian America (2004) the inaugural book of the new National Museum of the American Indian, Clifford Trafzer notes that at the opening of the museum, tribal elders fed cornmeal or corn pollen to the wooden masks as affirmation to the masks’ spirits that they are being cared for. The grain’s enduring importance is seen in the ceramic pot decorated with corn motifs that traveled over five million miles with Astronaut John Herrington, the first member of a Native American tribe (Chicksaw) to orbit the earth. When students study the Maya in conjunction with viewing the Maya Vessel in Memory and Cosmology, they can also investigate how corn played a role in all aspects of Maya life: as a staple food, as a gift from the gods, and in the Popol Vuh, the material of which the gods fashioned humans.

Activity. Investigate the importance of corn in our own lives. Begin by having students list as many products as they can that contain corn. When they go beyond the obvious they will find that most soft drinks are sweetened with high fructose corn syrup, and that corn appears as an ingredient on many labels. (Don’t forget corn meal, corn oil, and cornstarch while searching—all corn products, of course.) In addition most corn actually is grown as animal feed. They might want to learn more about ethanol, the corn-based fuel or fuel-additive. The website of the National Corn Growers Association, http://www.ncga.com (7/11) has ideas for using corn as a subject for class study. Corn also figures in the design of the Corn Palace, a large elaborate structure in Mitchell, South Dakota. For over 100 years, the people of Mitchell have used varieties of colored corn (along with some dried grasses and other grains) to form large impressive murals on the Palace. The building is redecorated yearly. Students can learn more about the structure at http://www.cornpalace.com/ (7/11) and, using the Palace as inspiration, can then design or construct a model and collage the exterior of their own fanciful building and its murals.


4. Balance in the Fourth World

Hopi passed through three lower worlds on their way to this, The Fourth World, the world of humans and other animals, of plants, minerals, and forces of nature, each with a spirit. The Hopi, assuming responsibility for the well being of Mother Earth, work to achieve a peaceful and harmonious existence as they honor all the spirits and work to maintain balance among them. They know that we all depend upon the other in order to survive.

As manifestations of the spirits called from their mountain home, the Katsinam are of great importance. With the power to inspire life they come to sing, to dance and to bring life-giving rain. For Hopi desert farmers, rain is the key to survival. (Despite scant rainfall, they have lived high above their fields for centuries, inhabiting the oldest continuously inhabited settlements on the continent.)

Katsinam wear the sun and the stars, and they wear the clouds, the rain, and rainbows. Symbols for the elements are sewn onto clothing, painted on their faces and bodies, and carved onto headpieces. Other symbols abound too—for seeds, blossoms, bugs, plants, animals, fish, and people. They teach that the spirits of all things on Mother Earth must be honored for all to survive.

Today, we teach about the ecosystem and the need to respect and care for all elements of nature. As Hopi stress, the future depends upon us. We must wisely use what we have because there are still people coming after us.

Activity. Access to fresh water is crucial in all areas of the world, not just arid climates like the southwestern United States. Students can use any news medium to learn of current situations of drought and water scarcity. Discuss the remediations that are being suggested or taken.

Activity. Lessons on water-related issues are developed in the “Regarding Rivers” sections of the Fowler Museum’s Curriculum Resource Unit, Ways of the River (2001). Lessons on water ecology can be found on the Heal the Bay website http://www.healthebay.org/.

Activity. The interdependence among water, vegetation, animals, and man often leads people to conflicting interests. The Hopi have often encountered struggles in maintaining what they see as a balance essential for survival. Have students research and debate some issues involved, and seek out comparable issues in their own locales. Some difficulties encountered by the Hopi have included a coal mining operation that, in transporting the coal and cooling the turbines, uses up an important drinking water source; roads built along land that they need for farming; destruction of important sites to get at the material needed to build the roads; and overgrazing by cattle and horses.

Damming a river to control it has advantages and disadvantages that can be discussed and debated by students. How might a dam help a community? What about nearby communities? What effect on the habitats of plants and animals might result? Who bears responsibility for keeping contaminants from a local water
supply? Is it only officials who work in the field? Similar discussions could address other environmental concerns such as air pollution, landfills and trash disposal, and endangered species, among others.

Useful Readings

Colton, Harold S.
1949 Kachina Dolls with a Key to Their Identification. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press.

McDermott, Gerald.
1974 Arrow to the Sun. New York: The Viking Press. *

McMaster, Gerald, and Clifford Trafzer, eds.
2004 Native Universe, Voices of Indian America. Washington, D.C.: National Museum of the American Indian, Smithsonian Institution and National Geographic.

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

Seceakuku, Alph H.
1995 Following the Sun and Moon: Hopi Kachina Tradition. Flagstaff: Northland Publishing and the Heard Museum.


* Children’s book

Photograph Captions

A. Kooyemsi Katsina (leader of the Racer Katsina), circa 1900. Grandfather of David Monongye
(Hotelvilla, Arizona, artist’s dates unknown). Wood, paint, bandana. H: 29.5 cm. Fowler Museum at UCLA. Museum Purchase. X68.158

B. Talavaykatsina (Morning Singer Katsina). Hopi peoples, Arizona. Circa 1930. Wood, paint, feathers, and other media. H: 29 cm. Fowler Museum at UCLA. Gift of Mr. Richard M. Cohen. X84.1086

C. Hooli Katsina (Little Brother of the Eagle). Grandfather of David Monongye (Hotevilla, Arizona, artist’s dates unknown). Ca. 1900. Wood, paint, feather, string. H: 22.8 cm. Fowler Museum at UCLA. Museum Purchase. X68.161

D. Taatangaya Katsina (Hornet). Hopi peoples, Arizona. Late 20th century. Wood, paint.
H: 25.5 cm. Fowler Museum at UCLA. Museum purchase. X82.932

Notes to the Teacher

This lesson is part of the curricular materials developed to accompany the exhibition Intersections: World Arts, Local Lives. Although this and companion lessons are self-contained, each will be enhanced when used in conjunction with others in this resource. Addressing several lessons within each unit will facilitate the incorporation of the study of world arts and cultures into your curriculum.

The lesson is based on works in the second section of the exhibition called Art and Knowledge. In this gallery works are introduced that served to communicate knowledge and a sense of history. See “Unit Two—Art and Knowledge” for an introductory statement on the unit, along with some provocative “Questions for Thought,” and suggestions that will inspire the students to relate the unit to their own lives.

Images of objects to be shown to students may be printed as handouts (from within each lesson), viewed online at the Intersections web link http://collections.fowler.ucla.edu, or downloaded from the curriculum page on our website.

More Unit Lessons