Indian carver carries on ancient tradition. His dolls, symbols of Hopi and Tewa culture, are hot collectibles
Polacca, Ariz. — The sunlight is just right, beaming into the dimness of the shed through an open door. It glows on a row of torsos. They're wood, of course. And amid them sits their carver, Fletcher Healing, a Tewa Indian. He's making kachina dolls for shops, boutiques, and the tourist trade. For these outlets, Mr. Healing sticks strictly to the Tewa clown, a slim but jocular figure painted zebra-style in black and white. For a splash of color, there's a slice of watermelon in his wooden hands. This particular guy is a particularly good seller in the Anglo market.
Mr. Healing knows all about Tewa clowns because he grew up in Tewa Village.
Way back in 1700 a group of Tewa, who lived in the Rio Grande area, sought refuge with the Hopi. Their descendants are still on the Hopi First Mesa today. Understandably, the Tewa and Hopi share many cultural patterns, including kachina beliefs [see accompanying article].
``This was a hobby I had,'' says Healing, ``to keep me busy.''
And that it does. The carver, who's a retired highway maintenance employee with the Arizona Department of Transportation, has found himself another full-time occupation.
How many kachina dolls does he craft a month?
``I can't keep track. I work all day, then sometimes I take a rest,'' he says. But the orders flow in year-round.
``He gets orders from shops - even in Indiana,'' says his wife, Julia, a Hopi, somewhat puzzled that Hoosierland with its Indy and basketball mania would welcome kachina dolls. Mrs. Healing was raised in the Hopi village of Sichomovi, near the Tewa settlement, both high on the windswept mesa. The couple now lives at the mesa's base in the Hopi village of Polacca.
Kachina dolls aren't playthings for kids like Cabbage Patch and Barbie. In the Anglo market, they're collected by adults who house them in glass cases, or sandwich them between Shakespeare, Updike, and the like on their bookshelves.
In recent years, the dolls have become hot commercial items, and carvers churn them out, keeping pace - if not ahead - of the Anglo appetite.
But Healing will tell you that for the Hopi and Tewa, kachina dolls carry deeper significance than collectible items to spruce up living-room decor. They're given to little girls, both as toys and teaching tools. Each doll is carved, painted, and bedecked to reflect a particular kachina spirit within the Hopi religion.
Although the dolls often hang from rafters or on walls in Hopi homes, they're not idols or icons. Rather, they acquaint youngsters with the vast array of kachinas that range from Crow Mother and Black Bear to Squash and Mudhead.
Much of the time, Healing works in the shed behind his house. You can't miss the scene as your car bumps up the dusty road to the mesa above.
``They [tourists] see me sitting here,'' he says. ``I don't go out, though,'' a phrase that tells he doesn't need to recruit buyers. He sells each doll, about 10 inches tall or so, for around $175.
Healing's hair has silvered, and the sun coppered his hands long ago, a color that contrasts with the black and white he meticulously applies to his dolls. He's taciturn, too, but cordial, letting you watch him work.
``Yes, I carve them by hand,'' he says, a comment that elevates his figures above the lathe-turned dolls that sometimes slip into the marketplace to trap unwary buyers.
Like other kachina-makers, Healing carves his dolls in sections - legs, arms, torso and head.
In earlier times, kachina dolls were simpler, more static in stance, so they were carved from single pieces of wood. But today's figures come in action-packed postures or life-like positions, and artisans find it easier to carve them piecemeal.
Some collectors still seek those early dolls of the late 1800s and early 1900s. They view these simple art forms as better representations of supernatural beings, leaving today's refined figures with their detailed noses and toes to buyers who like sleek craftsmanship.
True to tradition, Healing fashions his dolls from the root of the cottonwood tree.
``It's easy to work with, and doesn't break,'' he explains.
In times past, carvers could glean along the banks of the Little Colorado, selecting cottonwood ``drift.'' But these supplies have dwindled as more and more craftsmen fill current demands. So, Healing resorts to distant commercial suppliers.
Healing isn't busy like some male carvers making kachina dolls to give to young girls at ceremony times. That's because the Healings have one adult son and a six-year-old grandson.
``And boys get rattles and bows and arrows - not dolls,'' says Mrs. Healing.
How kachinas fit into complex Hopi system of beliefs
The Hopis live high on mesas in the rain-hungry lands of northern Arizona.
Below the mesas, they farm the acreage, coaxing their major crop - corn - into high yields.
With an average annual rainfall of about 10 inches, the air crackles with dryness, and the earth crumbles to dust. Little wonder that the Hopi religion focuses on the need for rain, with fervent calls to the kachinas for help.
In simplified definition, kachinas are considered the spirits of Hopi ancestors, as well as spiritual essences inhabiting aspects of nature. The Hopis see hints of the kachinas' presence in mists and clouds and even the steam that rises from hot food.
The kachinas aren't gods; they're regarded more as friends, interested in the Hopis' well-being.
When the Hopis petition the kachinas through prayer offerings, they expect them to reciprocate by sending rain for the crops.
The term kachina also applies to the men who take part in traditional ceremonials. To the Hopis, the men's performance goes far beyond just a representation of the spirit kachinas.
It's believed that during the ritual these male dancers are actually imbued with the kachinas' spiritual essence.
Young girls receive kachina dolls as gifts at two ceremonies - one after the winter solstice and the other in late July.
These presents help the Hopi youngsters learn and understand the kachinas, a crucial part of the complex Hopi belief system.