Wayland NaminghaJr.'s first trip to the Eiteljorg Museum's annual Indian Market & Festival — in fact, his first trip east of the Mississippi River — involved a long drive from his home in Kykotsmovi, Ariz., with his family and a collection of the kachina dolls he carved, including this year's winning piece: a Koyala clown kachina doll.
Although 2009 was the first year he participated in a major market — the prestigious Santa Fe Indian Market — the young Hopi artist still considers himself a "newbie" to market competition and says he wasn't expecting to be considered in the running for the signature artist here. "This means a lot," he says. "Usually at shows, you see the jewelry and carvings made with high-end materials like marble get attention. It's good to be a traditional carver now."
Heritage of tradition
Tradition plays a pivotal role in Namingha's life as well as his art. Living in the village of Oraibi (the oldest continually inhabited community in North America) on the third Mesa on the Hopi Reservation, the genial artist farms the cornfields given to him by his father, practicing the time-honored dry farming method commonly used in the high desert area since the 12th century. "It's my alone time," he says with a soft drawl characteristic of the third Mesa. "It's when my problems go away and my creativity flows."
His creativity has been evident since he was a boy, sitting in the sawdust created by his father's carving, imitating fundamental techniques with a horseshoe file. "I watched my father carve since I was an infant," Namingha reminisces. "It's a tradition that is passed down. When males 10 and older are initiated into society, they're allowed to carve kachinas. But they don't earn the right to carve them right away. They have to explain the meaning and the significance of why we give them to infants."
Kachina dolls are traditionally carved by me, the men of the village prior to each Kachina ceremony and given to uninitiated girls at the Spring Bean Planting Ceremony and Home Dance Ceremony in the summer. The purpose of the dolls is to acquaint children with some of the more than 300 different kachinas, or katsinas, and teach them traditional ways of life.
Kachinas are spirits who guide and protect. They represent ancestors, animals and natural elements who can use their power for human good, such as bringing rainfall, healing or fertility. According to Hopi religion, kachinas typically visit the village from February to July, helping to bring rain to renew the land for the growing season by singing and dancing, before returning to their home in the San Francisco Peaks — near Flagstaff, Ariz. — to rest.
Koyala is one of the clown kachinas that provide amusement during ceremonies, cleansing participants of their wrongs and imparting lessons about acceptable standards of behavior in the Hopi community.
When Namingha was working on the winning kachina, he was "stuck," he says. Then inspiration struck. "I was looking at pictures of my two boys, who did a clown dance. I had some white wash, so I copied their costumes when I painted the doll."
Finding inspiration close to home is typical of this family man, whose goal was to share a booth at the Santa Fe market with his father — a dream that nearly came true in 2009 when both men's applications were accepted. But the younger Namingha lost his father before that dream could come true.
His father's example still guides him, but Namingha, who worked as a carpenter until Santa Fe's housing market slowed in 2006, is establishing his own unique style within the realm of the "New Traditional Movement."
The first kachina dolls were carved from a single piece of cottonwood root in the "Early Traditional Style" from roughly 1880 to 1910. Simple in form and no longer than 8-10 inches, they were usually flat or cylindrical and were intricately painted with dyes and pigments made from native minerals available in the area.
Namingha still walks the land to find his own pigments. He uses no acrylics or oils. "I always use local natural pigments. I find lighter colors like grey, white and yellow in the washes. It's more rewarding to find them." Once found, the pigments undergo a process of stabilization, boiling with juniper pitch. "These techniques are not new," he points out. "They have been passed down for generations."
Through the years, the painting has become more detailed and the dolls more proportionate. As Namingha explains, "In the late '70s and '80s, kachinas got away from the traditional style to a more contemporary style. They were more lifelike, like sculptures painted with acrylics and coated with linseed oil."
One change during the 1970s resulted from the Endangered Species Act and Migratory Bird Treaty ban on selling of kachina dolls that featured feathers from birds such as eagles, parakeets, hawks, pheasant or quail. Instead, the feathers of the dolls were carved in the wood, which led to a new form of Hopi art — the kachina sculpture. These days, Namingha says carvers use feathers from small game birds, although the Hopi are allowed to harvest feathers from birds of prey for ceremonial use. "It's a major part of who we are. They are messengers between us and the spiritual beings."
More recently, a revival of the traditional style has occurred as part of the "New Traditional Movement." This style emulates the simplicity and softer natural pigments of the traditional style used before tourist consumption influenced design. "The more traditional style is geared more toward the face than detailed bodies," Namingha explains. "The dolls have big heads that express more personality."
Namingha's personality appears as his style evolves. "I got away from the 'bellyacher' style where they're in a bent-over position, holding their stomach." Some of his recent carvings have experimented with slightly tilted heads. "It's just a little movement that adds interest. It's different from the traditional style."
Subtle variances don't detract from his reverence for tradition. Using only natural materials, such as cornhusks from his farmland, Namingha carves only known kachinas — "I never make up new kachinas." He selects the most popular ones, such as sun kachinas and the ogre family, and says his favorites are the animals because "people connect more with them."
No matter which kachinas he creates, this gentle and generous man considers himself fortunate to be who he is and says if it weren't for traditions like the kachina ceremonies, "we'd be nothing."
Sharing his art through the Market allows him to teach others about the Hopi (the Peaceful People) and how they live.
"We're still practicing our religion," he says.