Flat Katsina Doll

Associated Smithsonian Expert: Gwyneira Isaac, Ph.D.

Dr. Gwyneira Isaac with Native American Pottery

Dr. Gwyneira Isaac works in the Department of Anthropology as the Curator of North American Ethnology at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. Her research focuses on investigating how societies develop relationships with their past and how this is expressed through material culture and museums. She also examines how media and technology are used within the field of ethnology, museums, and anthropology as a whole. She specializes in the American Southwest, Pueblo of Zuni, Knowledge Systems, Material Culture, Visual Anthropology and the History of Anthropology. She has a Ph.D. in Social and Cultural Anthropology from the University of Oxford, England. Previously, she was Associate Professor and Director of the ASU Museum of Anthropology, at the School of Human Evolution and Social Change at Arizona State University.

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This image was obtained from the Smithsonian Institution. The image or its contents may be protected by international copyright laws.

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About Dolls and Toys

Dolls and toys are typically thought to be nothing more than children’s playthings. However, throughout history different cultures have used them in a variety of ways. Dolls and toys come in many shapes and sizes and are made from different materials depending on what is available to the makers in the surrounding environment. They are miniature representations of either people or concepts, and, as such, they can be used as teaching tools and have meaning for adults as well. For example, the Hopi Katsina doll is used to teach children about the Katsina spirit it represents. In many cultures, such as those in Africa, adults use dolls to teach children different rituals or cultural traditions. Dolls can also be used in a commercial setting by serving as the model for dressmakers or sold as commodities by craftsmen. Other dolls, such as those of the Inuit, are used as a means of cultural expression and pride by showing traditional dress, or they are used in depictions of important events in the culture’s history or present life.

Baule woodcarvers at work, Yagolikro village, Ivory Coast
Photograph by Eliot Elisofon, 1972. Image no. EEPA EECL 6900. Eliot Elisofon Photographic Archives, National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution

About Humans and the Environment

Humans have always manipulated their environment, whether by acquiring food, making and using tools, or other aspects of daily life. They are constantly interacting with their environment on a daily basis. By using the available materials, humans have created shelter, made tools, created containers and vessels, and produced items of personal and cultural significance. Many of these resources are naturally occurring, such as stones, minerals, animal bones, or organic fibers from plants, while others are made from combining materials. The process of acquiring these materials and the manufacturing process can be traditional practices that are passed down from one generation to another. Because materials are unique to the location of different communities and cultures, by studying the types of materials, as well as animal remains found and the processes used to manipulate them, anthropologists and researchers can learn about the daily activities and lifestyles of the cultures they are studying. In what ways do you interact with your environment on a daily basis?

Related Resources
A mask dancer performs a traditional Indonesian dance
Photographs courtesy of Dr. Mark Hobart

About Ceremonies and Rituals

Cultures around the world observe different rituals and ceremonies. These can occur for a variety of reasons, but they all serve a significant purpose for participants. Some rituals and ceremonies are related to religious practices, such as the complex dances of the Hopi people of the American Southwest. In these rituals, the Hopi believe that the dancers actually become the Katsina ancestors or spiritual messengers. These rituals are used to honor the ancestors and acknowledge their role in bringing rainfall. Other ceremonies and rituals are essential to social relations within and between communities. For example, tribes of the Northwest coast of North America celebrate life events through a festival feast and gathering known as a potlatch. This allows for the members of the communities to redistribute wealth among them and reconnect. Status in these ceremonies is granted to those who give the most, not those who are given the most. In what sort of ceremonies or rituals does your culture or family participate?