Kachinas: The Spirit of the Hopi 

Animist dolls hark back to an ancient mentality imbued with new timeliness.

Koyaanisqatsi, the title of Godfrey Reggio's mesmerizing 1982 film on frenetic modern life, is a Hopi word meaning "life out of balance." Most of us ensconced in the global data beehive cannot imagine the traditional way of life that shaped most of human history, but it's clear that a more ecological sensibility is needed today (although "the desire to become obscenely rich" made exciting religious headlines last week as a newly minted sin). The current exhibit of Hopi kachina dolls at the C.E. Smith Museum of Anthropology at California State University, East Bay, provides a glimpse into that ancient mentality of subsistence crops and nature deities; and the idea of rituals promoting harmony between people and planet actually sounds rather progressive these days, when the mortgage, employment, debt, and deficit gods have turned their faces from us.

The Hopi, one of the agrarian Pueblo Indian peoples who have inhabited the arid mesas of the Southwest for a millennium, invoke divine intercession to ensure rain, fertility, and a bountiful crop in their northeastern Arizona homeland. (Their name means "polite person.") Hopi kachinas, "life bringers," are representations of natural forces (sky, storm, trees, ashes) or other mythic beings; there are hundreds of them, with the cast ever changing, polytheism being both democratic and pragmatic. The kachinas live atop San Francisco Peaks near Flagstaff, Arizona; their places are taken by costumed male dancers of various clans who perform annually in underground sacred chambers (kivas) and plazas from the January arrival of the Chiefs to the July Going Home Ceremony. Variously awe-inspiring (Chief kachinas), terrifying (Ogre kachinas brandishing knives and saws, and Whipper kachinas wielding yucca whips), and benevolent and comical (Clown and Mudhead kachinas), the dancers are thought to become transformed into the omnipotent invisibles whose names they dare not utter. (These dances, incidentally, are off-limits to the profane tourist, however well-behaved.) Traditional kachina dolls (tihu) are carved of dried cottonwood root, then coated with clay and stained with natural pigments; such dolls, made by Hopi men as educational presents and spiritual protectors for their daughters and nieces, form the core of this provocative cultural and historical exhibition. Innovative contemporary dolls, however, are sought by eager collectors, who perhaps merit a humorous kachina of their own. Through June 13 at CSU East Bay, C.E. Smith Museum of Anthropology (Meiklejohn Hall 4047, Harder Rd. at West Loop Rd. near Lot C, Hayward). Class.csueastbay.edu/anthropologymuseum or 510-885-7414.

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