Carving a katsina doll from cottonwood tree root unearthed from the mountains in northern Arizona, Curtis Naseyowma cradles a buffalo-inspired creation and explains how the sculpture is rooted in the beliefs and culture of the Hopi Indian tribe.
“Everything above the ground already has its purpose. Everything below the ground still has its chance of becoming what it wants to be,” says Naseyowma, 49, explaining why katsina dolls must be carved out of the root.
Pulling a light-colored root from a satchel, the artist points out a dark heart-shaped pigment in its center. “Look at any cottonwood root and it always has a heart,” he says. “It’s the heart and soul of the root.”
The beliefs and heritage of the Hopi tribe—a people respectful of the land and its resources—are at the heart and soul of each of Naseyowma’s katsina dolls, also known as “kachinas.”
Not considered toys or idols of worship, the dolls represent benevolent spirits, each with its own name and purpose, and are given as ceremonial gifts to teach young Hopi girls about tribal beliefs. Each gift represents a wish for good health, growth and fertility.
Naseyowma has been carving the dolls for decades. Like most Hopi woodcarvers, he learned the skill from his father after being initiated into the katsina society, a rite of passage when a boy reaches puberty.
“He started by watching me,” explains Gilbert Naseyowma, 79, proudly recounting how his son’s work has evolved through years of practice and patience. “But you have to learn by doing and making your own mistakes. That is how you improve your work. Your hand has to work with your mind.”
To begin the process, the younger Naseyowma gathers tree roots in the San Francisco Peaks region near Flagstaff, Ariz., where according to generations of Hopi carvers, hundreds of katsina spirits reside. He carves mainly in his home on the Hopi Reservation in Tuba City, Ariz., where he lives with his wife and four daughters.
Although he most enjoys carving animal figures, Naseyowma doesn’t know what shape will emerge when he picks up a root. “I start by feeling the wood. I have yet to sit down and draw a sketch of what I’m going to make,” he says.
Working the moist wood, he uses a handsaw until a figure emerges—such as one resembling a buffalo dancer, which represents healing. Then, using a smaller hand tool for detail work, Naseyowma chisels each strand of hair, along with the fine wisps of a feather. The carving process can take up to two weeks, after which the piece is cured with linseed oil and decorated with oil paints.
While he makes traditional katsinas for tribal ceremonial gifts, Naseyowma also fashions contemporary katsinas to sell to art collectors and admirers at events such as the annual Heard Museum Guild Indian Fair and Market in Phoenix.
“Katsinas are books in wood. They are teaching instruments,” explains Bruce McGee, vice president of retail sales for the Heard Museum, which celebrates American Indian art and exhibits one of the world’s finest collections of katsina dolls.
As the museum’s primary buyer, McGee has purchased dolls from more than 200 Hopi katsina artists for prices ranging from $15 to $30,000. McGee examines each doll for craftsmanship and authenticity.
“I don’t know of a more spiritual carver than Curtis. He takes no shortcuts,” he says. “It’s all there in the details. He captures the dance movement. Without hearing the song or hearing the rhythm, you can see it in his carvings.”
The son of a Hopi father and Taos mother, Naseyowma says he is “carving a piece of myself” with each doll he shapes. More importantly, he is continuing a tribal tradition that has been passed down for generations.
“It’s [sharing] what I feel in my heart,” he says. “You have to be able to share to prosper in this world.”