Keith Torres: Kachina Carver in the Clouds

Keith Torres: Kachina Carver in the Clouds

Article by  Kevin McNeer 

Photograph of Warrior Mouse kachina by John Hoar.
All other photographs by Kevin McNeer.

A week of driving through Arizona led me and a friend to Walpi, a Hopi village mingling with the clouds on the fingertip of a mesa. A century or so ago, its geometric stone dwellings were made iconic in immaculate black and white by the likes of Edward Curtis and Ansel Adams. Old photographs show a living, breathing settlement: cloaked Hopi women with “squash blossom” hairdos – two giant side buns – at work or gazing out from rooftops; groups of feathered male dancers on the plazas; and ladders and pottery cluttering the terraces of the stacked homes. But old Walpi is empty now, except for dances and ceremonies, and today’s Hopis live in modern cinderblock homes set back from the rocky promontory or clustered around its base.

We walked through the abandoned pueblo, all ears on our guide Dickson Silas – next in line for the chiefdom – never sure when his wit might flip the conversation upside down, and always keeping one eye on a rainstorm crawling closer over the flatlands below. Our conversation meandered through local history, hunting, Toyota repairs, past girlfriends and Hopi beliefs. We stood for several moments in silence around a sacred stone pillar, each pressing the palm of his hand against it, then said goodbye, and my friend and I walked briskly to our car – the rain curtain was almost upon us.

As we drove away through the lived-in part of Walpi, swerving around dogs that lounged unconcerned in the street, it struck me that the one-story homes could have been in some rugged corner of rural Greece or the Balkans except for a few tell-tale signs, such as the painted red hand that reached out to us from a black metal door. Then we noticed a handwritten sign in a window – “Hopi arts and crafts” – and stopped the car. The small, ramshackle building was a far cry from the sleek galleries in the tourist hubs of the Southwest. Lured by the prospect of a less varnished authenticity, we stepped into Keith Torres’ workshop.

There were no glass display cases, no turquoise jewelry or expensive rugs, no credit card reader. This was pocket knives, Dremel grinders, Styrofoam cups full of paint brushes, and tangles of extension cords. Half-carved, half-painted wooden figures stood on a work table. Unhewn, twisted cottonwood tree roots peeked out from the shadowy corners of the room, some standing on the ledge of a woodburning stove. Their natural shapes already looked like rough figures, and I could imagine the poses they would take – some would be dancing, others standing proudly. They were waiting for Torres’s able hands to bring out the Kachina dolls hidden inside. Kachina dolls are carved representations of supernatural beings, the spirit intermediaries between the human Hopi and their deities.

Traditionally, Kachinas were handed out during the yearly Bean Ceremony every February. Dancers in costume gave them to girls (boys got bows and arrows and wooden lightning bolts), and no one knew who had made them. A Hopi girl would populate her room with Kachinas the way my generation did with action figures: a black-and-white photo in an old book shows a row of Kachinas festooned above a Hopi child’s bed. But these figures have a religious significance, representing hundreds of spirits who in turn emblematize character traits, forces of nature and other qualities. The dolls’ age-old purpose has been to educate Hopi children about the principles of Hopi life and religion, and to help them recognize these spirits when impersonated by costumed dancers in celebrations.

Onto this vast and intricate cosmological web restless European stock came crashing, and Kachina dolls have been hot items for “white” collectors since the early 20th century. The colorful characters and names – Mudhead, Warrior Mouse, Crow Mother, Snowmaiden, Prickly Pear Cactus, Mocking Kachina – are appealing to outsiders without any knowledge of their spiritual significance: an indigenous Marvel Comics universe. As outside interest grew, stylized, secularized versions of the figurines developed, carvers began cultivating individual styles, more realistic detail crept in, and glossy, pricey books tailored to buyers stacked up.

Torres’s father was Mexican and his mother Hopi, and he is part of the Coyote and Fire clans. He learned his craft from an uncle and has been carving for close to half a century. Realism, fine carving, dynamic poses, and a dose of humor inform his Kachinas. His English seems a little unsteady, and yet so did his Hopi when I asked him for the names of things. Or maybe I didn’t understand – or he didn’t want to say. In either case, many of the people we met in the First Nations of the Southwest seemed to inhabit a liminal space between cultures, epochs and languages. Many seem to have lost or be losing their native tongue in the face of the irresistible advance of English.

Torres is blessed with a healthy distrust of “progress.” He doesn’t like the new practice of posting the schedules of Hopi ceremonies and dances on the Internet, and he doesn’t like talking on the phone about his work, not to me at least. When I called him to discuss his evolution as a carver, at my words “interview you for an article,” he grumbled something unintelligible and the line went dead. Torres carves and creates. He is happy to receive guests in his workshop in the clouds, but he doesn’t give formal explanations of his work – not over the phone – just as he doesn’t approve of Internet listings of Walpi ceremonies. He chatted for an hour with us in person though, and took special care in packing the Warrior Mouse I purchased and in instructing me on just how to open the box at home without damaging the delicately carved wooden headdress feathers.

Each Kachina is woven into Hopi mythology, and details of its story and traits are “written” on the carving in the form of costumes, body paint, masks, hair styles, horns, eye shape (round, square, painted, pop out), mouth shape (triangular, rectangular, tubular), and items carried in the hands (bows and arrows, rattles, whips, ceremonial staffs) or in the mouth (fish). Books on Hopi carving often provide extensive keys for deciphering these markers.

The bars and circles painted on the brow of Warrior Mouse, the doll that caught my eye in Torres’s workshop, are warpaint and mark him as a fighter – along with the hatchet and bow he usually carries. Warrior Mouse is a relatively new subject for carving and technically not a Kachina, or spirit, but a folklore character. His story, or one version of it, is more or less as follows:

A hawk has been preying on the village chickens. Nobody can shoot this fast-flying aerial assassin, and the chickens are so sick with fear they won’t leave their coop. They begin to drop dead. Food is running out. The village chief goes to the supernatural Spider Woman, and she puts the chief in touch with a certain field mouse who lives with his grandmother (and eats breakfast with her every morning).

The Mouse agrees to help the village, to go on the warpath against the hawk, and orders certain preparations undertaken. A stick is sharpened and hardened in a fire. The Mouse digs a tunnel with four access holes, driving the sharpened stick upright into the last – just below the surface. He puts on his war kilt and headdress, paints his body, grabs an ax and a bow, and generally makes himself as showy as possible. Now, beside the tunnel, he begins to bang a drum and dance (some carvers put a rattle into the mouse’s paws). The nervous villagers await the inevitable appearance of the hawk, and soon enough the chicken-slayer is circling overhead. It swoops down, but Warrior Mouse slips into the first hole at the last possible moment, only to reappear as soon as the bird reascends. The hawk again gives chase, and Warrior Mouse darts into a prepared hole each time – only the hawk is coming closer with every dive. The bird has seen through the little rodent’s ruse and dive-bombs with renewed fury, aiming not for Warrior Mouse but for the next hole – the fourth – into which it knows Warrior Mouse will slip. This time the hawk plans to dive into the hole after him….

And so it does, impaling itself on the sharpened stick placed there. Warrior Mouse emerges from the hole, stands on the bird’s corpse and belts out a war cry. The village is saved.

KEVIN MCNEER is a journalist and documentary filmmaker. He lives part-time in Russia and in Richmond, Va.

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