• Jennifer Barnick

The Hopi’s Kachinas—A Sacred Friendship


Photo Source: Wikimedia Commons

The Hopi are an agrarian Native American tribe who live in the American Southwest, primarily in Arizona, where today their Hopi reservation covers a land area of over 2,500 square miles. (vintagenews.com) The Hopi have a complex religion that encompasses deities primarily ascribed to nature, ancestor worship, and…well…a very special and sacred relationship with spirit beings they call Kachinas. I wrestled with various terms to describe the Kachinas: spirit guides, angels, guardians, and teachers. In truth, Kachinas play all those roles, including clowns, baby sitters, and rainmakers. The relationship is complicated in that the Hopi do not view or worship the Kachinas as gods, rather they are, in many ways, friends or maybe grandpas or sometimes police. They are powerful and are from another plane of reality or dimension—they are from another world and have access to power and powerful beings who are in the position to bring or withhold rain. Always though, whether they are scolding or comforting, the Kachinas come with love, come as friends.

“Each year, Kachinas come, walk upon the earth, and they dance to bring life and renewal. When Kachinas return to the spirit world at the end of the planting, they return with prayers of the Hopi that we might all continue on this earth for another round in the circle of life.” (Kachina Meanings, pueblodirect.com) January is when the Hopi begin their sacred call to their spirit friends who faithfully come to be with them. The men of the village don special masks and other sacred adornments that represent a specific Kachina. There are hundreds of different Kachinas, each with a different task or specialty. A few examples of Kachinas are the Mother Crow who watches over children as they play, the Road Runner who assists in bringing rain and wards off witchcraft to protect homes, and the Buffalo who is the most powerful amongst the Kachinas; the Buffalo can kill evil thoughts and is a great spiritual protector. (Kachina Meanings, peublodirect.com) It is very important to note that the masked Kachina dances are not considered performances. They are considered prayers. It is believed by the Hopi that the Kachina that is being emulated by the dancer enters the body of the dancer and is on earth to aid the Hopi villagers. Sometimes the ritual is not a dance but a race where Hopi males dressed as Kachina race each other on foot.

In some ceremonies open to an audience, the Kachinas distribute Kachina dolls, toy bows, rattles, fruits, and sweets to the children between dances. (Kachinas of the Puebloans, legedndsofamerica.com) Many Kachina ceremonies are not open, rather are performed in underground Kivas. Kivas are a special place for Hopi worship and keenly reflect their interconnected view of the Cosmos and spirit beings. Kivas are underground cave-like structures with a small hole above with a ladder leading down into the cave. As the person prays and performs a ritual, it is believed that the spirits, including the Kachinas, come down the ladder to join the person. This is very similar to Jacob’s Ladder of the Old Testament.

In addition to Kachina mask and ceremonial dress are Kachina dolls. The dolls are traditionally made by males of the tribe and given to young girls. Boys are usually given bows and arrows. While they are called Kachina, it’s important to note that only when the Hopi don a Kachina mask and dance or perform other ritual rites does the Kachina spirit come to earth. “These dolls are also called Kachinas but are not invested with power though they are treated with great respect; their primary purpose is to help familiarize the children with the real Kachinas.” (Kachina Role in Hopi Life, crossingworlds.com) These dolls are very much valued, however, and are not played with like toys. They are hung on the wall in Hopi homes and often passed down through generations. The Spanish, upon seeing the Hopi Kachina dolls hanging in their homes, misinterpreted them as devils and thought the Hopi worshiped devils.

The Hopi calendar is divided into two seasons: the non-Kachina part of the year and the Kachina part of the year, where the Hopi perform rituals and ceremonies to honor, pray to, and call forth the Kachina to join them on earth and to help them. The Kachina season begins in January and ends in July. After the season ends, the Kachinas are bid a fond farewell by the Hopi people, and then the Kachina return to their spiritual homelands. The masked Hopi ceremonies are considered very sacred and are not open to non-Hopi. Other Hopi dances are open to the public and well worth the effort to see.

The Hopi religion is one of complexity, union with nature and ancestors, and sacred friendship. Now, it is true that us non-Hopi are not part of the extraordinary relationship between them and the Kachina; however, we have our angels, our loved ones who have passed away, and honestly, our very special friends (including our special animal friends) who sometimes are our teachers, our clowns, babysitters, protectors, police, and our healers. I think the big universal lesson in the Hopi’s Kachinas—those sacred friends—is how to cultivate the Hopi sense of gratitude and sacredness towards the loving-kindness that surrounds us through all kinds of special beings from this world and beyond.

Photo Source: Flickr

Jennifer Barnick is a painter and writer. She studied painting at the San Francisco Art Institute. She founded Twenty-two Twenty-eight. “One of the most exciting aspects of Twenty-two Twenty-eight is building a channel for artists and writers to share their work with the world.”

Check out Jennifer’s book. You can read the first short story for free on Amazon here.