How to recognize authentic Hopi kachina dolls

Views 80 Likes Comments Comment
Like if this guide is helpful

Greetings from the Kachina Motel; this is a much-needed guide to help folks tell the difference between a real Hopi kachina and one of the multitudes of fakes. In my other guides, I have discussed why buying authentic Hopi kachina dolls is important, from both an ethical and a collection-quality standpoint. Since there is a lot of variation in kachina appearance, not only between time periods but between individual carvers, I realized that some clear photos of the details, plus some reference images of actual kachina regalia, might be helpful. If you agree and find this guide helpful, please leave a "yes" vote at the end!

We always hear that knowledge is power, so let's put the power to recognize fakes into your hands (or eyes, as it were). As you know, kachina dolls have evolved over time due to cultural, economic, and material factors. However, the basic design elements have remained constant and have been well-documented for more than a century. Because each element of a kachina's regalia has meaning and has been established through long tradition, it is actually relatively easy to identify which variations are authentic.

Kilts and sashes: When the live kachinas dance in the plazas, the most common item of regalia they wear is the kilt (skirt); the design most often seen is white, with the edges bordered in black and on the right side a stylized "raincloud" design embroidered in red, green, and black. This is usually accompanied by a long, narrow dance sash in red and black. Here is a picture of a real kachina kilt and dance sash to show how they should look on a doll:

Along with these, kachinas also often wear a wide, elaborately embroidered sash. A real one is easy to recognize; the symbols represent clouds, rain, bean sprouts and corn (not a kachina face, as some believe). Some kachinas may appear with a rain sash, which is a wide white cotton belt that has long fringe to represent falling rain. Fake kachinas may have a painted belt of some kind but the design will not be accurate--remember that the Hopi designs have remained essentially the same for generations. The two types of sashes look like this:

Kachinas may also appear wearing a buckskin kilt or tunic, a snake-dancer's kilt of brown with a snake design, or sometimes a kilt made of checkered cloth or a woman's black dress. Kachinas may also wear a folded white kilt or black dress as a breechcloth, and sometimes will wear pahana (white man's) clothing such as bluejeans or an old suit. No matter when the doll was made, you will see these same designs consistently.

Fur and leather: One of the key giveaways of a fake kachina is the use of large amounts of rabbit fur and colorful leather. In reality, an authentic kachina doll will have fur in only a few places: around the neck as a ruff, across the shoulders as a cape, or to represent the fox skin that is often worn at the back of the belt. Buffalo and Wolf kachinas may have fur head-pieces.

Sometimes a "hunter" will carry a small piece of fur in one hand to represent a rabbit or other prey. Likewise, depending on which kachina is represented, leather may be used in capes or bandoliers, as arm-bands and bowguards, or on mocassins. Dolls with a lot of random dangling leather ornaments or brightly dyed leather clothing are not likely to be real.

Yarn: As with leather, yarn is used for specific purposes and should only appear in a limited number of colors--mainly black, green, white, or red. Yarn is used to create ruffs at the neck or for bandoliers worn across shoulders, and it may be tied around arms or legs. It can also be used to represent red or black horsehair on a beard, moisture-plate, or belt. Use of yarn varies with different time periods (dolls from the 1960s and 1970s used a lot!). Some collectors don't like to see yarn on a kachina, but it is authentic nonetheless.

Body paint: Kachinas most often appear with brown bodies and with their shoulders painted (one blue, one yellow). However they may also have brown bodies with animal signs, which are large white circles filled with black, and dotted with white. Others have black body paint with yellow shoulders, or with the linked half-circles that represent hands clasped in friendship. Some ogres or other figures may use white or grey body paint, and of course the koshare clowns have black and white stripes across their whole bodies. Sometimes, like shoulders, legs may be blue or yellow, and Heheya kachinas often have tattoos that represent fertility symbols.

Tabletas: Certain kachinas and social-dance figures wear tabletas made of thin pieces of wood. Traditionally these are lashed together with twine or strips of leather, but modern ones may be made of a single piece of plywood, particleboard, or even cardboard. Many fake antique dolls have tabletas, but are easy to spot because the shapes are wrong and the symbols used on them are random, inaccurate, or just plain weird. All the dolls shown here are authentic.

Recognizing variations in kachina dolls: There are plenty of "mythconceptions" about how a real kachina should look. You may have heard that dolls must be made from one piece of wood, or that only carved feathers are allowed. Not so: carvers often use smaller pieces of cottonwood root for arms and legs, and feather-work is a sophisticated and dramatic addition to many modern dolls, particularly from carvers of the new traditional style. Carved feathers are certainly OK and can be as simple or ornate as the artist chooses. Makers of fine-art kachina carvings make figures with exceptional detail!

The four Eagle (Kwahu) kachinas shown here are from different eras, but you will notice that there is not a bit of rabbit fur to be seen--unlike the Navajo fake to the right. One of the authentic dolls wears a whole bird skin with wings along the arms; the others use either carved or real feathers. Eagles are a favorite among fine-art kachina carvers, old-style carvers, and makers of fakes--yet as you can see here, they can look very different but all still should share the same characteristics.

Finally, let's look at how kachina dolls show their age. These objects are extremely brittle and it is pretty normal to see older dolls with missing ears, hands, and especially feet. For a century-old doll this may affect the value only slightly, but it is always preferable to have a kachina as intact as possible. What will certainly devalue a doll is a poor repair or any over-painting--so resist the temptation to "fix" things.

Patterns of wear on authentic older kachinas should be consistent with normal handling and display. Wallhanger dolls of any age should mainly show wear on their backs and on parts in high relief that may hit or rub against the wall. Minor smudging of paint may also be seen, since older pigments are less stable; modern dolls painted with mineral pigments may also be at risk for some smudging, especially the black color. Fake dolls are often "distressed" and you can see from the examples below that they may be smudged, smoked, scraped, sanded, or otherwise dinged-up to appear old--yet the patterns of the wear are not appropriate.


Thanks for reading this far! While it's impossible to cover all the different kachinas and their many variations, I hope that this guide has given some helpful tips to help you separate the real gems from the mass of fake kachinas, and protect your investment. Being familiar with the actual appearance, regalia, and associated items belonging to kachinas will be good insurance! Please see my other guides for suggested reading and online resources, and remember, if you have doubts about any object you see on Ebay or elsewhere, don't be shy about asking questions. A reputable and knowledgeable seller or trader will be happy to share his or her information.

Askwali! (thanks!)

Have something to share, create your own guide... Write a guide
Explore more guides