As assistant curator of Native American and non-Western art, Heather Ahtone focused on half a dozen katsina spirits of the Hopi Native American culture to assemble Hopituy, which runs through Sept. 15. The exhibition contains 170 objects, some of which have been part of the museum’s permanent collections for decades.
Since last October, Ahtone has researched katsinam — or “spiritual beings” — and their importance to the Hopi way of life.
Katsinam are ancient deities in the Hopi culture represented through katsina dancers during ceremonies and multiple art forms, including carved wooden figures also mistakenly referred to as “kachina dolls,” according to Michael Bendure, museum director of communications.
“The katsinas visit as spirits into the Hopi villages from late January until early July,” Ahtone said. “When [they] return back into their homes, they are only present in the natural phenomena in which the katsinas represent.”
She chose six spirits that the Hopi people believe come to the village at different times of the year:
• Angwusnasomtaqa (Crow Mother),
• Soyoko (Ogres),
• Koyemsi (Mudheads),
• Palhikmana (Dew Drinking Maiden),
• Angaktsina (Long Hairs) and
• Nimankatsina (Home Dancers).
“I was a little bit scared of the dolls,” Ahtone said. “Not knowing what they are, they felt very powerful. The katsinas have such great depth of meaning. The whole system they contribute to has allowed the Hopi to continue living as Hopi people in their environment in the 21st century,” she said.
The katsina dolls are not sacred in and of themselves, Ahtone said.
They are presented to children and young brides as a ceremonial gift, which sustains an artistic market for the Hopi people.
“We have over 1,000 Hopi tihu — carved effigy dolls,” she said. “Many times, these materials have been difficult for an Oklahoma audience to fully understand what is being presented to them. As an Oklahoman who comes from tribes here in Oklahoma — I’m Choctaw and Chickasaw — I really didn’t understand or know much about these [katsinas].”
The Hopi tribe currently resides in an isolated area of northeastern Arizona, where it has lived for 1,200 years.
A month into her research, Ahtone spent a week conducting first-person interviews with members of the Hopi Pueblo community, including three artists who helped her write the essay featured in the exhibition’s gallery guide.
Free educational opportunities throughout Hopituy’s run
include scheduled lectures by:
• Ahtone at 12:30 p.m. July 11,
• artist James Lambertus at 6 p.m. July 19, and
• artist Neil David Sr. at 4 p.m. Sept. 5.
“I want people to be able to understand and appreciate how beautiful the carvings are and the designs and how they work within the Hopi aesthetics, but it isn’t our role [as an art museum] to necessarily teach the Hopi culture,” Ahtone said.