Butterfly Maiden Katsina: What Makes an Object Beautiful?

January 17, 2018

Object Analysis by Anastasia Hutnick

Some Native objects can inspire awe in non-Native viewers, much in the way that one might respond to a fine work of art without knowing the cultural background of the imagery. The most intriguing objects (in my professor’s opinion) are those that “remind us of what came before” and that have “an intense attention to detail, and an inherent beauty.” Anyone who walks in the room should be affected by it, even if they have no idea about the context behind it. We agreed that there is something compelling about the katsina (often called kachina) standing before us.

“Kachina Doll” object # 2009-10-37. Penn Museum photo.

This figure clearly has inherent beauty. She is carved entirely from wood, likely cottonwood, the traditional choice for katsina carving.[1] Her tablita headdress includes each of the colors of the directions: yellow for northwest, blue-green for southwest, red for southeast, white for northeast, and black (violet in this case) for the zenith.[2] She has carved eagle feathers on her headdress, in her hair, and in her hands, and expertly carved hawk feathers in a bow upon her forehead. She wears a painted mask, containing the same colors of the directions, and her robe and clothes appear to flow on and with her body. Her boots appear soft, and her right knee is bent, her right foot raised slightly. I could not tell that she was entirely carved until I inspected her closely. Her lifelike appearance is uncanny, with the individual strands of her hair, the intricacies in the feathers, the texture of her skin, and the tension of her movement. Being transfixed by her beauty and the obvious skill of her creator, I knew that I had to write about her.

My first task was to learn more about her identity. She is simply labelled in the archives as a “Butterfly Maiden Kachina.” She came from the Hopi Pueblo culture, and she was donated to the Museum by Richard William Wolf, Jr. in 2009. In my research, I found that Hopi culture has two types of katsinam (the plural of katsina) or tihu (loosely translated as “dolls”) that correspond to “Butterfly Maiden”—the Poli Mana, who personifies the spirit of the Butterfly Maiden katsina, and the Palhik Mana, the dancer who evokes the Butterfly Maiden katsina during the Butterfly Dance.[3] Upon examining several photos of both types of katsinam, I realized that the figure before me was a Palhik Mana, typical of figures carved during the “Late Action Period.”[4]

Carving details on headdress, feathers, face, and hair. Photos by Margaret Bruchac.

I then proceeded to find another Palhik Mana katsina in the Penn Museum collection—this one was collected by Stewart Culin during the Wanamaker Expedition in 1901. Comparing the two highlights the drastically different styles in which they were created, with the 1901 tithu being an example from what is classified as the “Early Traditional Period.”[5] The 1901 Butterfly Maiden is less proportional, with shorter legs, and arms pulled in at right angles. The proportion of her legs and the rigidness of her form are typical, as she was created to hang from the wall. Her wooden skin was washed with white clay before being painted, likely by traditional vegetable-based paints. [6] One can see the mask lines on her painted-on face. Her clothes are also painted on, and, unfortunately, she is missing her tablita which, during this era, likely would have contained real eagle and hawk feathers.[7] She was not created to be realistic, but rather to evoke the spirit of the dancer.The 2009 Palhik Mana, in contrast, appears directly proportional to the human body, with her entire body engaged in the dance. The attention to detail comes from the use of more modern tools—such as X-acto knives and wood-burning implements—which provide such fine texture in the hair and feathers.[8] Her feathers are carved, rather than real; today, many katsina carvers create the feathers out of wood. The dynamic motion requires a base, often cut from cottonwood, which is present here.[9] The signature of the artist—Edward Calnimptewa—can be found on the wooden base.

The tihu that were created for traditional use—often given as gifts to women and children to educate and provide them with a sense of presence and protection—were never signed, as they were believed to have been created by the katsinam themselves through the carver.[10] Some of those gifted katsina were made to be hung on a wall; others rested on a base. The 2009 Butterfly Maiden Dancer katsina was clearly created for commercial sale, as is evidenced by the signature on her base. Tihu created to be sold typically bear a signature, so the artist can take credit for, and profit from, their work. It is important to note that Palhik Mana figures like this one, in the Late Action Style, are highly popular and commonly created by carvers for commercial sale. She is beautifully detailed, but technically, she portrays a dancer; she does not portray a katsina herself. Carvers who might be concerned with improperly selling the spirituality of a katsina can avoid doing so by making a figure like this one.[11]

Today, countless commercial tihu are created and sold on auction sites or online marketplaces as well as donated to museums. Tihu can range in price anywhere from $100 to over $2,000, depending upon the construction, artist, and subject matter.[12] Each artist’s style is uniquely their own.[13] With the increasing popularity of Southwestern figurative carvings in the art market, there has been further development in both hyperrealism and abstraction. Some of the newer katsina-like sculptures have long, thin, impossibly curving bodies, and incorporate multiple katsinam into one body. These sculptures are not recognized as katsina, but they are influenced by the katsinam.[14]

In comparison, the 2009 katsina has an understated realism. One can feel the tension in her body without overtly seeing her muscles or a more physical pose. When comparing her to the abstract nature of the sculptures, one can perceive the power of her subtle reality.

“Kachina Doll” object # 38928. Penn Museum photo.
Anastasia Hutnick with Butterfly Maiden Katsina.

The Palhik Mana seems to embody the detail and the beauty that would identify her as a fine artwork, but how does she remind us of what came before? She does not appear like an early, late, or “Old Style” tihu. Instead, she exists in the present, embodying a living tradition by using every benefit of modern tools and style. Through the attention to detail bestowed upon her, we can feel her authority, her movement, her benevolence.

Little is known about the carver who made her, but after reading and viewing testimonies from famous katsina carvers, I found that for many, to carve a katsina for ritual use is a very spiritual process. The katsina tells the carver what they want to be, and how they should be.[15] The carving itself is an important process of artistically asserting Native culture and identity.[16] Although this doll was not designed for ritual use, the expressive life between the carver and the carved is apparent through her appearance. Her beauty is visible in our eyes.

We have discussed, in class, the idea of object agency, of objects being able to tell stories on their own. I believe that through the details of her construction, this Palhik Mana carving attracts our attention and implies a sense of agency that evokes the living dancer. The detail and subtlety of the Butterfly Maiden Dancer inspire us to quietly reflect, while we ponder what she is trying to tell us.

This object analysis was conducted for the Fall 2017 University of Pennsylvania course “Anthropology of Museums.” Students are examining Native American objects in the American Section of the Penn Museum by combining material analysis (elements, construction, design, condition, etc.) with documentation (texts, photographs, ethnographic data, etc.). Since some objects have minimal provenance data, we seek out similar materials, consult research articles and archives, and consider non-material evidence (oral traditions, ecosystems, museum memories, etc.) that might illuminate these objects. This research is designed to expand our understandings of object lives, using insights and information gathered from inside and outside of the Museum.

Sources Cited:

[1]Barton Wright, Hopi Kachinas: The Complete Guide to Collecting Hopi Kachina Dolls, (Flagstaff, AZ: Northland Press, 1977), 9.
[2] Ibid., 12
[3] Ibid., 54. Also see Barton Wright, Kachinas: A Hopi Artist’s Documentary, (Flagstaff, AZ 1973), 105, 106.
[4] Helga Teiwes, Kachina Dolls: The Art of Hopi Carvers. (Tucson, AZ: University of Arizona Press, 1992), 47-50.
[5] Ibid., 41-43.
[6] Ibid., 42.
[7] Wright, Hopi Kachinas: The Complete Guide, 18.
[8] Teiwes, Kachina Dolls, 55-56.
[9] Wright, Hopi Kachinas: The Complete Guide, 18.
[10] Teiwes, Kachina Dolls, 70. Also see Zena Pearlstone, Katsina: Commodified and Appropriated Images of Hopi Supernaturals (Hong Kong: South Sea International Press, 2001), 47.
[11] Pearlstone, Katsina, 59.
[12] Wright, The Complete Guide, 23 – 24.
[13] Teiwes, Kachina Dolls, 100.
[14] Pearlstone, Katsina, 162.
[15] Teiwes, Kachina Dolls, 106.
[16] Shanna Balazs Dunlop, Carving Self -identity: Hopi Katsina Dolls as Contemporary Cultural Expression (Ph.D. thesis, McMaster University, 2004), 188, 194.

For an overview of the 2017 object studies in the Anthropology of Museums class, see:
• Margaret Bruchac. “Object Matters: Considering Materiality, Meaning, and Memory” in Beyond the Gallery Walls, Penn Museum Blog, December 4, 2017.