What was your favorite toy when you were a little kid? If you're like most kids, you can probably think back a few years and picture some of your favorite toys that you played with for hours and hours.
If you're a Native American child in the American Southwest, you might have received many dolls as you've grown up. Unlike the dolls many kids play with, though, yours weren't toys.
Native Americans in the Southwest have prayed to the great spirits for more than 2,000 years, asking to be blessed with the sunshine and rain to grow abundant crops. They believe that when winter arrives, spirit beings known as Kachinas (also called Katsinas) come to Earth bearing messages from the great spirits.
After the spring planting season ends, the Kachinas return to the spirit world. Each tribe has its own unique Kachinas. In total, there are thought to be over 400 distinct Kachinas.
The Hopi people were the first to make Kachina dolls as teaching tools to help young children learn about the Kachinas. During the planting season, men dress as Kachinas during special dances and ceremonies. At the end of these ceremonies, they give Kachina dolls to the children. Other tribes, including the Zuni and Pueblo peoples, carried on the tradition.
Unlike toy dolls, Kachina dolls aren't for play. Instead, they are usually hung on walls or displayed proudly in the home. They get passed down from generation to generation, staying in families for hundreds of years.
Traditionally, Kachina dolls are carved from a single cottonwood root. Today, though, carvers may make dolls from a variety of other woods. The dolls are then painted and decorated to resemble particular Kachinas.
While Kachina dolls were originally made to teach children about the Kachinas and their connection to the spiritual world, today they're a popular collector's item, and many Kachina dolls are made specifically to be sold to people outside the tribe. Some Hopi people see the dolls as a way to help outsiders understand their culture.