In the Arms of a Doll: American Indian Culture, Dolls, and the Astor Collection

by Margaret Sumner

The 'Beautiful American Sweetheart' doll, Susan, is sixteen inches, "made of fine porcelain" with "strawberry blonde" synthetic hair, and green plastic eyes. 1 Manufactured by the Everyday Collection Company, she offers potential owners a permanent model for the perfectly patriotic American girl. Collectors may also purchase the 'Little Girl Praying' doll—"She is an adorable 16 porcelain angel kneeling there and praying. She is dressed in a lovely dress made of fine material. Blushed hand-painted cheeks adorn a beautiful face with brilliant brown eyes. Her brunette curled hair is styled with silk bow." 2 A perfect example of a mother's ideal vision of her daughter at bedtime. From infancy, Western children, most especially girls, are inundated with such dolls. These dolls present society's image of how these girls should be—the curly-haired angels as children, the blonde bombshell Barbies as adults—and provide an important socialization tool under the guise of innocent play. The concept of the doll, however, is not unique to Western culture. Many cultures, in one form or another, use miniature human figures for socialization and other purposes.

These figures, which will all be referred to as dolls in this paper, go far beyond the Western plastic and porcelain images to include any depiction of humans, and perform a myriad of functions within each culture. In the cultures of American Indians, these functions encompass all facets of life and fill multiple roles within the society, either separately or simultaneously. Mary Jane Lenz identifies four primary categories for these roles in her book The Stuff of Dreams. This paper will provide a broad overview of these four categories—toys, ritual use, performance/puppetry, and tourist art—with regards to the various cultures of the Indians in the Americas—which will then provide greater insight into the American Indian dolls currently held in the Astor Collection at the University of Virginia.

The most generally known and accepted purpose for dolls is that of playthings for a culture's youth. Dolls, much like other toys, serve not only to entertain children, but also to socialize them by teaching them their society's customs through the creation and use of their dolls. In Western culture, both boys and girls play with separate, specifically gendered dolls (i.e., Barbie Dolls for girls and G.I. Joe dolls for boys) which are created either by their mothers (in earlier times) or by some unknown manufacturer. In American Indian cultures, dolls are created as toys by men and women and are utilized by children of both genders, although the gender lines of girl dolls for girls and boy dolls for boys are still seen.

Indian Dolls of the Arctic regions are one example of the gendering of dolls in which some groups identified male dolls with a smiling face and female dolls with a frowning face. These dolls were carved out of "bone or walrus ivory" 3 solely by the fathers of the children, regardless of the gender of the recipient. The Plains Indians, on the other hand, created unisex dolls to which children then assigned genders, usually the same gender as that of the child, for the duration of play time. The Katsina dolls of the Hopi Indians were originally created only by men and given only to girls after being used in agricultural ceremonies. In Central and South America, the gender of the doll's maker varies between groups, though not within the groups. The Lengua of this region create the most gender-obvious dolls by actually creating female dolls with breasts, although this is not done with all female dolls. Thus, while gender played a role in the creation and use of dolls, it was a flexible role which varied between and within societies. For most groups, the emphasis was on the use of the doll as a socialization tool rather than on the gender identifications created by them.

In almost any culture, dolls are created with the dual purposes of entertainment and socialization, or education, of that culture's youth. "Dolls are educational in that children playing with them learn both practical techniques and attitudes of adult behavior." 4 Both the creation of the doll and the types of play created by the children for the doll subtly teach children the customs and skills of their culture which they will need later on as fully involved adults within their society.

The most basic of these lessons can be found in children watching their parents creating dolls for them—an act which at its core teaches the children how to make dolls for their own offspring as well as the simple, yet necessary, continuation of the custom of creating dolls for the children in order to perpetuate the socialization of future generations and ensure the continuance of the culture's customs. In some cultures, this learning process is taken a step further for young girls, who are taught the "essential skills" of clothes making and allowed to develop "artistic sensibilities" through the creation of their own dolls. 5 These girls learn how to take local raw materials and transform them into functional, beautiful clothing—a skill which is highly prized in American Indian cultures where women have the sole responsibility for clothing their families. The Apaches in particular used the creation of dolls to teach their girls the necessary decorations for clothing by creating simple dolls and focusing attention on the elaborate decoration of them using "fringe, paint, and cloth appliqué" to "replicate traditional Apache dresses." 6

While socialization through the creation of the dolls was limited primarily to girls, socialization through play encompassed all children of both genders. American Indian children in the Arctic regions played with dolls outfitted with elaborate miniatures of all the implements utilized by their parents, while simultaneously learning the various emblems of status incorporated into the doll's dress, as well as the religious beliefs that the dolls could come alive and must therefore not be taken to bed unless first blessed by a shaman. Plains Indians utilized unisex dolls to "play camp"—complete with miniature tipis set up in the same manner as the actual camp. Boys would use their dolls as warriors to hunt, going so far as to create horses out of sticks for buffalo hunts. They have even been observed acting out interactions and conflicts between enemy camps by splitting into two camps, boys against girls.

American Indian children of all regions, in fact, used dolls to imitate the everyday actions of their parents as well as their ritualized actions for special ceremonies. Karaja children use dolls made of clay and painted body art to imitate "the intricate movements of the traditional aruana dance," complete with "a dance track in the sand next to the river" as well as the actual songs and dances employed by their parents in the ceremony. 7 In this way, children may learn the dances of their culture as second nature and be ready to perform them as adults without extensive additional instruction. In this way, "doll play provides both an educational and an emotional component" which enables the children of a society to later put away their toy dolls and assume adult roles within their society, secure in the customs and skills that they learned through playing with them and thus secure in their roles as adults. 8

Dolls are not, however, restricted simply to children and their play. They are also utilized by adults and shamans as tools of power and ritual. Whether imbued with special powers for every day use or created for specific rituals or purposes, American Indians view dolls as powerful resources—some containing their own spirits, others the spirits of the people. Dolls may contain power, or merely display it, and are used in healing rituals as well as for other purposes.

While some scholars make a distinction between dolls used for play, as described above, and "human-form images used exclusively for religious purposes," 9 they will be treated as being of the same category here due to the fact that, for some American Indian cultures, dolls may take part in both roles. One such example of dolls which are used in ritual and then given to children for play are Hopi Katsina dolls, which will be discussed at greater length further on in the paper. Other dolls which may be used for ritual and then play because they merely contain powers or spirits for the culture, and are emptied of these in the course of their ritualistic use—then making them useless for further rituals and safe for use as toys. This may be seen in Indian cultures in South America and Panama. There, simple wooden dolls are created for each child by shamans and "begins its existence as a sacred object, intended to contain the guardian spirit of an infant. During a ceremony of dedication, the spirit passes from the figure into the child, after which the doll is given to the child for a plaything." 10

Other dolls are used by American Indians not to simply contain power, but to display it to the community. These dolls are generally based upon the spirit dreams of a shaman or other individual and are created specifically by and exclusively for the dreamer. These dolls may be kept in plain view of all, "such as the small ivory figures fastened to the deck of an Eskimo kayak to assure hunting success," 11 or may be kept in secret, shown only to certain people during specific moments in ceremonies. Similarly, these dolls may be "handed down from one generation to the next" 12 or destroyed after they are used.

The most common uses of such dolls are for fertility and healing rituals. Dolls are found to be used for fertility in almost every region of the Americas. Eskimo and Central Plains Indians sleep with or carry dolls in hopes of curing barrenness, Southwest women participate in "the spring Bean Dance ceremony" 13 utilizing dolls, Hopi women are given putsqatihu katsina dolls, and Mexican couples create a doll after a pilgrimage for fertility. Each culture believes that the power of the doll, whether it is made by the couple or by a shaman, has the ability to make them fertile and bring them a child.

Healing rituals, like fertility rituals, may be found in almost every American Indian society—and most, if not all, utilize dolls in some way. The Delaware Indians create Health Guardian dolls which belong to the families and are honored in annual ceremonies and given a new wardrobe yearly as a sign of respect. These dolls are passed down between generations, guarding one family for the duration of their existence—an existence which may span more than a century due to the extreme care which is taken with them. Other cultures, such as the Cuna, also utilize dolls for healing rituals. The Cuna shamans "use wooden figures to cure sickness by instructing the doll to locate and return the lost soul of the afflicted." 14 These dolls, unlike those of the Delaware, are burned after a single use in some areas but kept for multiple uses in others. Still other cultures use dolls to prevent sickness rather than cure it. In each case, however, the use of the doll is an integral part of the ritual's power to protect and heal its people.

Of all the dolls used for rituals, the most famous are the Katsina dolls created by the Hopi Indians. These dolls are "made from the roots of the cottonwood tree and painted with tempera paints" using dyes of "red ochre and carbon black" 15 and were originally created only by men, although women are now allowed to create commercial Katsinas. The Katsina dolls began as flat pieces of wood "with only enough carving to identify the head and mask" before developing into fully carved, stationary figures "with disproportionately sized body parts" 16 and later into highly stylized figures, many in poses indicating motion which had been previously absent. In the twentieth century, Katsina dolls, which also became used for sale to tourists, developed even further so as to allow for the personalization of the figures to imitate a famous person or that of the buyer. 17 Despite this anomaly, however, there is an immense amount of power and ritual which surround the Katsina dolls and their place in Hopi culture.

Linguistically, the term Katsina may be taken to mean "those who sit with the people, and listen to their petitions for rain and other spiritual or material blessings." 18 In practice, Katsinas are "seen as beneficent beings that came from the Underworld," 19 go betweens for the gods, and have power over the weather as well as violators of Hopi law and new initiates into kachina societies. Because of their wide ranging power, the dolls are both used in ceremonies as well as imitated by ceremonial dancers. The dolls are also presented to girls after the ceremonies "with a prayer-wish that they may grow up healthy and strong and be blessed with many children." 20 As discussed earlier, these dolls, devoid of their ceremonial power, are now allowable as play things for the children—a tactic which also accustoms them to the overarching presence of the Katsinas and their power in every facet of Hopi life, socializing them through play as well as ceremony.

Katsina dolls also bridge a third category for the use of dolls, that of performance and puppetry. The Katsina dolls and their human imitators dance in numerous Hopi ceremonies, performing blessings and passing on the story of the Katsina's origin. They also are used each spring to frighten children into good behavior, "reminding each child of past misdeeds and failed obligations, threatening to take the children away and eat them" 21 unless promises of future good behavior are made by the children and their parents.

Katsina dolls are not the only dolls used for performance, however. Puppets are used by many American Indian cultures in rituals to represent spirits or the dead, such as the Kwakiutl potlatches in which "a puppet with a detachable head danced about until a bird figure ...alit and carried away the head, returning it later." 22 Many puppets are used to act out religious beliefs or stories or to represent "flying shaman" which are "made to commemorate a shaman's magical journey to the spirit world" by Alaskan tribes. 23 Other performance dolls represent dancers, which are "virtually universal throughout the Americas," and thus their representative dolls are also universal. These dolls may be used in rituals as well as socializing toys and souvenirs for tourists.

The trade of American Indian dolls for European goods has been in existence since trade between American Indians and Europeans began, and may have even "existed in some parts of the Western Hemisphere long before the arrival of foreigners." 24 Aztec and Inca societies held huge annual markets and festivals for doll makers at which dolls could be bought and sold. The trade of dolls with European "explorers, traders, missionaries, and government officials" 25 was originally a side note to the main arrangement, thrown in by Indians to sweeten the deal. After the eighteenth century, however, Europeans began trading specifically for Indian dolls, curios which they could take back to their families or markets as familiar, yet alien objects.

The doll trade developed along three phases, according to Mary Jane Lenz. The first phase, discussed above, was the trade of dolls as "by-products of trade" in which dolls were "seen by the buyers as exotic curios and considered expendable objects by the sellers." 26 These dolls would most likely have been dolls made for children, which could be easily replaced, or dolls once used for rituals with no remaining power (which would have, again, been in the possession of children).

As trade grew and previous hot commodities, such as furs, became harder to acquire, American Indians began the second phase, the "deliberate production of dolls specifically for sale." 27 Dolls became deliberately put up for trade; materials which Europeans considered more desirable were used and the detail on dolls enhanced. The dolls also began to imitate the European stereotypes of Indians and the style became more generalized as Europeans expected similar items from different tribes within the same geographic area. Thus it is that many dolls may now be identified only by region rather than specific tribe. As trade grew, entire families devoted their energy into the creation of dolls and stores in which to sell them. The Iroquois, vigilant from the beginning, created the Owanudance Craft Guild and tagged each doll with instructions that their dolls not be "used in pseudo Indian ceremonies or other sacrilegious ways" 28—indicative of the overall struggle for American Indians to "interpret their own cultural traditions and take charge of the image they choose to present to outsiders." 29

The third, and perhaps most distinctive, phase was, and is, the "creation of new forms and the careful replications of traditional forms for a specialized collector's market." 30 There are now hundreds of mail-order catalogues and other forms of commerce devoted to the sale of American Indian dolls made specifically for sale, the earliest of them being the Kimport Company; which, until recently, sought out 'authentic' American Indian dolls to put up for sale through its mail order catalogue. Other Westerners, such as Fred Harvey, created 'gift shops' at areas, such as railroads, with high tourist traffic and commissioned American Indian art to sell to them. In the early 1900's, the Seminole Indians were managed by a white woman, Harriet Bedell, who took over the Seminole tourist art production, directing what dolls were to be made and with what materials—most notably enforcing the patchwork designs which are now taken to be 'authentic,' but are in reality a combination of the introduction of the sewing machine and Bedell's views on authenticity. As discussed earlier, Katsinas have also been adopted for tourists with the creation of "action poses" 31 as well as an increase in clown Katsinas for sale and customized Katsinas made to represent famous people or the buyer himself. As a result of the increase in production, the Hopi tradition of Katsina production by men only has been relaxed to allow women into the process as well. The United States Government has also participated in the commissioning and sponsorship of 'authentic' dolls by American Indians such as Nadine Van Mechelen 32 and Charles Chief Eagle. 33

In addition to these adaptations, American Indians have also created entirely new dolls specifically for the trade. The most famous example is the 'Storyteller' doll created by Cochiti potter Helen Cordero in the 1960's. A permutation of the 'Singing Mother' doll, which holds a single child in its arms, the original 'Storyteller' doll is "a depiction of her grandfather surrounded by five children" 34 but has now evolved to include male and female figures, as well as bears, of all sizes with a varying number of children. Other American Indian cultures adapted their crafts to fit the ever expanding doll market. The Papago created "Life form baskets"—"human figures made in ...[a] coiled technique" 35 that they had previously used to make baskets.

Today, American Indian dolls have so entrenched themselves in Western American culture that no family may visit 'the West' without purchasing one, and every child can identify one as Indian on the spot. Yet in the early twentieth century, such items were still novelties, owned by the few and of interest to all. It is probably because of this interest that multiple Katsina dolls as well as two, more traditional, American Indian dolls found their way into the collection of Indian tourist art in the Indian Grill Room of the Astor Hotel in the 1920's and 1930's. The main Katsina dolls have been discussed at great length in previous papers on the collection, as well as in this paper, and so this section will devote itself to the remaining American Indian dolls.

The first doll is listed in the collection's catalogue as simply a male "19th/20th C. Native American Childhood Article" 36 of unknown culture. It stands 20.5 inches high and is 7.75 inches across at its widest point. It is identified as originating in the Plains region of North America, as is evidenced by the materials used and manner in which it is constructed. The shirt which it wears appears to be in the style of a jacket sewn together, made out of leather and decorated with blue and white glass beads. There is fringe of the same leather along the shoulders and bottom of the jacket, as well as down the sides of the arms. The fringe on the shoulders appears to be part of a braiding together of the body of the jacket and the separate arms. Tiny threads are woven into the material, upon which are the beads which decorate much of the jacket. A single row of alternating blue and white beads line the neckline of the jacket as well as the center seam down the front. Two more, wider, rows of blue and white beads run along the shoulders and bottom of the jacket, just above the fringe. A triple row, blue/white/blue, of beads outlines the sleeves. There are three wide stripes in a spiral pattern, alternating groupings of blue and white beads, down the front of the jacket—one on the right side and two on the left. The outlining beading is continued on the back of the jacket. In the center, however, is the design of an arc with two lines coming out of where the corners would be if it were a square. This image is done in white beads with blue beads outlining it all the way around.

The pants are of the same material as the jacket, with heavy fringe down the outer sides. Beading in double rows of blue/white/blue run down the inner and outer sides, with a single row running along the bottom of the pants. In the center of each leg are two white beaded hoops outlined in blue beads and connected with the same spiral pattern found on the shirt. Along the cuffs of the pants is a pattern of swoops of red cloth sewn onto the main piece of leather and then overlapped by the bottom piece, which also contains the fringe. Between each swoop are two rows of beads, white/blue/white. These rows expand to three beads each on the back of the pants. In the center of the back of each leg is another spiraled stripe, mirroring those on the front but lacking the loops. Directly below the pants are what appear to be another set of pants which peep out the bottom with a concave scalloped edge. Below these are the pigeon-toed moccasins, made of the same leather as the pants and held on by leather ties interwoven in the moccasins and tied in the front with a bow. The soles of the moccasins are worn down.

The jacket and pants clothe a separate body, although only the remaining left hand and head are visible. The left hand is made out of 'natural' colored cloth wrapped over a harder material and sewn together with no distinct shape or fingers. The head is made of leather stitched over a very hard substance, as evidenced by seams running down each side. It has a hole on the top, out of which sprouts dark brown horse hair. The face is decorated with a tiny, brown mouth sewn into the center with a faintly painted nose directly above. There may have been eye painted above these, but the leather is extremely worn and scratched in that area.

It is interesting to note that there are two distinct shades of blue beads used on the doll. The beads down the sides of the jacket and on the back center design as well as on the bottom of the left leg are distinctly darker, suggesting that the original lighter blue beads were used up and more, of a slightly different color, were acquired to finish the doll—most likely through trade. The beading itself, while intricate, is uneven and asymmetrical and suggests that this doll may have been created by a young Plains Indian girl still learning the craft of beading by making this doll—a hypothesis which makes sense despite the male gender of the doll, as girls would be expected to learn to make clothing for both themselves and their male family members, especially their future husbands.

The second doll is significantly smaller, standing only ten inches tall and five inches across at its widest point. It is identified by the Astor Collection catalogue as a Hopi or Zuni "19th century Native American Childhood article," 37 a Katsina doll, possibly a 'Piptu-Wu-uti' from Arizona or New Mexico. The body and head of the doll are made out of a single piece of wood, with the remaining right arm made out of a separate piece and possibly held together with a nail. The face of the doll is stained brown with two v-shaped red stains on the cheeks and black ovals with centered dots for eyes. The nose is carved out of the same piece of wood with a small mouth dug out of it directly below with the same red stain used for the cheeks staining the bottom lip. The face comes to a rounded point for the chin. The back of the head is plain except for a white stamp outlined in red with initials or numbers on it—this, according to Jean Collier, has also been found on other pieces in the Astor Collection. There is a deep, wide groove carved out of the center of the piece with remnants of glue evident where a tabletta would have been attached. On the top of the forehead a rounded, horizontal piece of wood is nailed, just above the nose. Remnants of greenish-black feathers are tied to either end by string, with additional red strands on the right side. Small, faint black circles spot the front of the wood.

As mentioned above, the body and legs are carved from the same piece of wood, with the legs separated, narrowing for ankles, and then widening at the feet, which are slightly pointed at the toes and stained the same color as the face. The remaining right arm is made of the same type of wood and stained the same brown as the feet and face. It is carved into a bend at the elbow, with a disproportionately small hand which has five general fingers carved into it. Just above the thumb is a shallow hole with splinters of what appear to be a thin wood coming out of it, suggesting that it at one time held something.

The clothing around the Katsina consists of two pieces of "cotton cloth" 38 wrapped around the body and tied at the shoulders. The top layer wraps from the right shoulder, around the torso and back, before being tied back up at the right shoulder with string. The cloth is hemmed along the edges and has painted decorations along the right side, geometric in nature using black and red dyes, which is repeated again on the back. The bottom layer wraps from the left shoulder, goes underneath the top layer before reappearing at the bottom to form a skirt and retie at the left shoulder. The piece visible at the left shoulder is dyed black and yellow over the chest and back shoulder. The portion forming a skirt has a very large hem, with the stitching at knee level. In the center portion is a repeated design in black, red, and possibly yellow - although it is extremely faded. The pattern appears to be a black square containing a diamond divided into four parts, alternating red and yellow. The pattern may vary, but is too faded to tell, and continues onto the back.

Although Katsinas have been previously discussed in this paper and by other researchers for the Astor Collection, this piece bears an additional look as it deviates from the other Katsinas in the collection, and indeed is not discussed in Ryan Kennedy's "Astor Collection Katsina Dolls as Art and Commodity." Perhaps this is because this doll differs from the others in its great detail and in the fact that it, unlike most Katsinas, is clothed. The attention to detail in the carving of the face as well as the additional headdress in addition to the (now absent) tabletta suggest that this Katsina was created in a later period than those of minimal detail, yet before the tourist market began demanding 'action poses' since its stance is static. It is not, as other Katsinas in the collection are, identified as being made out of the traditional cottonwood nor is it identified as being painted with mineral paints. Additionally, none of the other Katsinas are described as having wooden pieces nailed to their foreheads, or any nails used at all. This suggests that this may be an example of early adaptations of Katsinas for a doll market looking for exotic dolls following the traditional form of being clothed with movable parts. Further research, however, would need to be done to substantiate this.

"The term doll, the only common English language collective word for human miniatures, is woefully inadequate to convey the widespread uses of human figurines" in American Indian cultures. Made out of cloth, leather, wood, stone, tusks, ivory, clay, or cornhusks; with or without face; clothes, stained, painted, or left unadorned—each seems to somehow convey the essence of humanity for its owner. Whether it is used for socialization, ritual, performance, or trade purposes, dolls somehow encompass all of human life. Most importantly, they serve as an expression of how people see themselves, or would like to see themselves, and in so doing create an invaluable record of their creators' cultures. Whether in the arms of an Iroquois girl, the grasp of a 1920's visitor to the Astor Indian Grill Room, or the hands of the researchers of the Astor collection at the University of Virginia, these dolls touch all facets of life, both past and present.


Chief Eagle, Charles
1990 Dolls by Charles Chief Eagle. Rapid City: Sioux Indian Museum and Crafts Center.

Johnson, Judi
1983 Native American Dolls and Cradleboards. Springfield: Illinois State Museum.

Kennedy, Ryan
2002 "Astor Collection Katsina Dolls as Art and Commodity." Charlottesville: University of Virginia.

Lenz, Mary Jane.
1986 The Stuff of Dreams: Native American Dolls. New York: Museum of the American Indian.

McQuiston, Don.
1995 Dolls and Toys of Native America: A Journey Through Childhood. San Francisco: Chronicle Books.

Murrie, Martha
2002 "The Hemis/Sio Hemis Katsina Doll of the Astor Collection." Charlottesville: University of Virginia.

Van Mechelen, Nadine
1991 Dolls by Nadine Van Mechelen. Browning: Museum of the Plains Indian and Crafts Center.

1999 Not Just A Pretty Face - Dolls and Human Figurines in Alaska Native Cultures. Fairbanks: University of Alaska Museum.



2. detail.php3?dept=New&prodid=ND-1036171904 75977

3. Lenz, The Stuff of Dreams, page 29

4. ibid, page 46

5. ibid, page 28

6. ibid, page 37

7. ibid, page 43

8. ibid, page 46

9. Johnson, Native American Dolls and Cradleboards, page 1

10. Lenz, The Stuff of Dreams, page 45

11. ibid, page 50

12. ibid, page 50

13. ibid, page 50

14. ibid, page 57

15. Kennedy, "Astor Collection of Katsina Dolls as Art and Commodity," page 2

16. ibid, page 7

17. conversation with Professor Hantman, Spring 2004

18. Murrie, "The Hemis/Sio Hemis Katsina Doll of the Astor Collection," page 9

19. ibid, page 9

20. Lenz, The Stuff of Dreams, page 39

21. ibid, page 69

22. ibid, page 65

23. ibid, page 67

24. ibid, page 75

25. ibid, page 79

26. ibid, page 79

27. ibid, page 79

28. ibid, page 81

29. ibid, page 82

30. ibid, page 79

31. ibid, page 86

32. Van Mechelen, Dolls by Nadine Van Mechelen

33. Chief Eagle, Dolls by Charles Chief Eagle

34. Lenz, The Stuff of Dreams, page 84

35. ibid, page 85