Native American Kachina “Spirits”: Precursors to Today’s Clowns…

1024px-The_mask_of_Kachina_(Hopi_Indians_rain_maker),_village_of_Shonghopavi,_Arizona-single_imageKachina Dancers, Shongopovi Pueblo, Arizona, ca. 1899 – 1900. The original slide was marked: “Copyright 1900 by Underwood & Underwood Publishers derivative work: Chetvorno” (Public Domain)

Kachina: What Are They?

“Sacred clowns” are part of the culture of a variety of Native American tribes. Here we provide information on kachina and clowns in Hopi culture. See “Additional Reading” for more information.

‘A kachina is a spirit being in western Pueblo religious beliefs. The western Pueblo, Native American cultures located in the southwestern United States include the Hopi, Zuni, Tewa Village (on the Hopi Reservation), Acoma Pueblo, and Laguna Pueblo. The kachina concept has three different aspects: the supernatural being, the kachina dancers (masked members of the community who represent kachinas at religious ceremonies)* and kachina dolls, small dolls carved in the likeness of kachinas given as gifts to children. [*emphasis: Haint Blue]

Kachinas are spirits or personifications of things in the real43fbad7b28d12a8501cdf53c79d2294f world. These spirits are believed to visit the Hopi villages during the first half of the year. 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.

There are more than 400 different kachinas in Hopi and Pueblo culture. The local pantheon of kachinas varies in each pueblo community; there may be kachinas for the sun, stars, thunderstorms, wind, corn, insects, and many other concepts. Kachinas are understood as having humanlike relationships; they may have uncles, sisters, and grandmothers, and may marry and have children. Although not worshipped, each kachina is viewed as a powerful being who, if given veneration and respect, can use his particular power for human good, bringing rainfall, healing, fertility, or protection.’


Illustrations of Pueblo kachina dolls from an 1896 book. (Public Domain)

What Are Kachina Dolls?

‘Kachina dolls are small brightly painted wooden “dolls” which are miniature representations of the masked impersonators. These figurines are given to children not as toys, but as objects to be treasured and studied so that the young Hopis 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 purpose of this is to help the children learn to know what the different kachinas look like.

It is said that the Hopi recognize over 200 kachinas and many more were invented in the last half of the nineteenth century. Among the Hopi, kachina dolls are traditionally carved by the maternal uncles and given to uninitiated girls at the Bean Dance (Spring Bean Planting Ceremony) and Home Dance Ceremony in the summer. These dolls are very difficult to classify not only because the Hopis have a vague idea about their appearance and function, but also because these ideas differ from mesa to mesa and pueblo to pueblo. (Wikipedia)

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Where Do Kachinas Come From?

‘The exact origin of the kachinas is not completely known, but according to one version of Hopi belief, the kachinas were beneficent spirit-beings who came with the Hopis from the underworld. The underworld is a concept common to all the Pueblo Indians. It is a place where the spirits or shades live: the newly born come from there and the dead return there. The kachinas wandered with the Hopis over the world until they arrived at Casa Grande, where both the Hopis and the kachinas settled for a while.



With their powerful ceremonies, the kachinas brought rain for the crops and were in general of much help and comfort. Unfortunately, all of the kachinas were killed when the Hopis were attacked by enemies and their souls returned to the underworld. Since the sacred paraphernalia of the kachinas were left behind, the Hopis began impersonating the kachinas, wearing their masks and costumes, and imitating their ceremonies in order to bring rain, good crops, and life’s blessings. The underworld is a concept common to all the Pueblo Indians. It is a place where the spirits or shades live: the newly born come from there and the dead return there.

According to the Hopi belief, the kachinas wandered with the Hopis over the world until they arrived at Casa Grande, where both settled for a while. Using their powerful ceremonies, the kachinas brought rain for crops and were of much help and comfort to the Hopis. Unfortunately, as the belief goes, all of the kachinas were killed when the Hopis were attacked by enemies; and their souls returned to the underworld.



The Hopis believe that, when this occurred, the “sacred paraphernalia” of the kachinas were left behind. So, the Hopis began impersonating the kachinas—wearing their masks and costumes, imitating their ceremonies to bring rain, and creating their likenesses in doll form, to encourage tribe members and bring hope and happiness.

Another version says that in an early period, the kachinas danced for the Hopis, bringing them rain and the blessings of life. But, eventually, the Hopis came to take the kachinas for granted, losing all respect and reverence for them; when that happened, the kachinas left the Hopi and returned to the underworld. Before they left, though, they taught their ceremonies to a few faithful young Hopi men; and showed them how to make machine masks and costumes*. When the other Hopi realized their loss, they remorsefully turned to the human substitute of kachinas, and the ceremonies have continued since then.’ [*emphasis: Haint Blue]

Are Clowns and Kachinas Related?



‘Hopi clowns (photo inset is a pointed clown) are an integral part of Hopi Kachina ceremonials where they participate in sacred rituals as well as unique clown performances—some with direct contact with the spectators. The clown’s performance centers on humor and entertainment, but also they monitor the assembled crowd and provide policing activities over both the Kachina performers and the audience. Mockery is a tool used to warn spectators of non-Hopi behavior, and generally long remembered by the recipient of clown attention.

The clown personages play dual roles. Their prominent role is to amuse the audience during the extended periods of the outdoor celebrations and Kachina Dances where they perform as jesters or circus clowns. Their more subtle and sacred role is in the Hopis’ ritual performances. The sacred functions of the clowns are relatively private, if not held secret by the Hopi, and as a result have received less public exposure. When observing the preparations taking place in a Kiva of a number of ‘’Pai’yakyamu’’ clowns getting ready for their ceremonial performance, Alexander Stephen was told, “We Koyala [Koshari] are the fathers of all Kachina.”

The Hopi have four groups of clowns, some are sacred. Adding 1aa9a3939cd3de6589a4ab2c58d32946to the difficulty in identifying and classifying these groups, there are a number of kachinas whose actions are identified as clown antics. In his book, Clowns of the Hopi, author Bart wright identifies, classifies, and illustrates an extensive array of clown personages.’ (Wright, Barton. ‘’Clowns of the Hopi’’. Northland Publishing; ISBN 0-87358-572-0. 1994.)


(Images not credited: Pinterest)

Additional Reading

Ritual Clown


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