Kachina, or katsina, dolls are religious dolls created by the western Pueblo Native American cultures of the southwestern United States. Kachina dolls are based on both the concept of the kachina as a supernatural being and kachina dancers. To Pueblo Indian cultures, a kachina is a spirit or personification of a thing in the real world. A kachina can represent anything in the natural world or cosmos, from a revered ancestor to an element, a location, a quality, a natural phenomenon, or a concept. Although not worshipped, each is viewed as a powerful being that, if given veneration and respect, can use his particular power for human good, such as bringing rainfall, healing, fertility, or protection.
The kachina dancer is a representation of a kachina by masked members of the community during ceremonial dances. These dances are a tradition of many Pueblo Indians, particularly the Hopi and Zuni, and are social occasions for the village, where friends and relatives are able to come from neighboring towns to see the dance and partake in prepared feasts. Kachina dolls act as miniature representations of kachina dancers. The design of the small brightly painted wooden figures duplicate the kachina dancer, his mask, his costume, body paint, and the paraphernalia which he carries. These figurines are given to children not as toys, but as objects to be treasured and studied so that the children may become familiar with the appearance of the kachinas as part of their religious training. During kachina ceremonies, each child receives their own doll. The dolls are then taken home and hung up on the walls or from the rafters of the house, so that they can be constantly seen by the children.
The Hopi were the original kachina doll carvers, beginning their craft in the late 19th century. The Hopi recognize over 200 types of kachina figures, although each carver has a different idea as to the appearance and function of each kachina. Both Hopi and Zuni doll carvers primarily use cottonwood root because it is lightweight and pliable. A variety of tools are used to remove bark, to smooth the wood, to form and finish the piece, and often to make additional parts such as head pieces, a tiny rattle or bow, or various body parts. Hopi and Zuni Kachina dolls are similar in style but Zuni dolls frequently wear clothes and have articulation of the arms.