The Gospels of a Mickey Mouse Kachina Doll

Not long ago I was perusing the Menil Collection, a museum which sits not a block from my apartment in Houston. It is a rather large, eclectic, and prestigious private collection of art, ranging from the ancient to the very contemporary. In the surrealist hall, among the Magritte’s, Dali’s, and Man Ray’s, rests a side room, obscured by a black curtain; easily overlooked by the hurried tourist. But upon inspection, the tiny room contained what amounts to a sort of treasury of curios. It’s a kind of archaeological find – masks, tools, costumes, and so forth littered the room, artifacts of indigenous cultures throughout the world. These were items that the surrealists themselves collected, “hoping an accident (among the items) would reveal analogies that convention concealed,” the juxtapositions opening doors to whole worlds of creativity and insight.i Among the hundreds of objects sat a shelf which held tiny statues. These little curios depicted known cartoon and popular culture icons of the early twentieth century, including an ivory-carved Charlie Chaplin and a Mutt and Jeff. But what struck my eye, and henceforth curiosity, was the authentic Pueblo kachina doll in the likeness of Mickey Mouse.(1)


It was an old kind of stiff-armed one, with pale, chalky paint – not the highest expression of the craft as we think of it today. But deeper questions began to mount. Why would a native carver create the Mickey Mouse kachina, as far back as 1930? What kind of culture is being depicted here? What became of the kachina cult itself? Can a Pueblo artist carve the symbol of the Disney corporate empire in all seriousness?


Here I endeavor to explore the kachina cult, and how the influence of the West impacted Hopi Pueblo society. It begins as a simple story of a self-contained culture and its traditions, but soon winds through turns of critical theory and art history, arriving at unexpected places. I effort to explore ways and forms in which cultures have continued transformation in postmodern technoculture by using the Mickey Mouse kachina as a paradigm for cultural syncretism. It is a story which advances through narratives at first familiar, then stranger, and familiar again, arriving at an original move, and final speculation on the future of cultural theory.

From Edmund Carpenter’s collection, book cover of his Oh What a Blow that Phantom Gave Me!

Doll Carving in Hopi Society

The Pueblos believe in a great creator spirit, and many other, demiurgic spirits. These other spirits, which may take on an analogous function to angels, saints, or orixas, are collectively called kachinam. In Pueblo lore, they are messengers between humans and the gods. Residing in the underworld resting below this one, kachinam emerge here in this world when needed through an aperture at the bottom of a lake. There are many of these kachina messengers – some ancient, the subject of folklore, and some the spirits of the ancestors. When a person dies, he or she becomes kachina, and may return to the world of the living as a kachina in their ceremonies.(2)


There are many rites and ceremonies among all the Pueblo peoples. It is important for the Pueblo to have ceremonies which bring their people in accord with the natural order in which they depend on. The ceremony serves as a participation mystique, a kind of sympathetic magic, in which human activities become joined and directly related to natural rhythms. The kachinam are rainmakers. Their ceremonies take place from between December and June, the prime season for planting, and serve as the people’s way to please the rainbringers in hope for a bountiful harvest.


In using the word “katchina,” the Pueblo mean three interrelated concepts – the spirit, the dancer who depicts the spirit, and the carved doll, which is a representation of the spirit and dancer. All Pueblos have kachina dances, but only the Hopi tribe carves kachina dolls. Authentic dolls, called tihu, are carved from cottonwood root by men who are initiated into the kachina cult. This is an exclusive society run by adult male Pueblos. They are charged with the magical ceremonies, the dances of the rituals, and the creation of the elaborate costumes.


In ceremony, when a dancer dons the mask of a kachina, he becomes a vessel for the spirit, identified with that spirit. As the dancers emerge from the kivas in costume, young children who witness the dances identify them not as their costumed relatives, but as the kachina spirits manifesting on earth, bringing rain and a bountiful harvest. Children are nurtured in a carefully contrived enchantment, a world of spirits and magic. In the ceremony, the kachina dancers bring the doll gifts to the children, usually to uninitiated girls.


After the ceremony, children take the dolls to their pueblo and hang them on the wall, or by a string from the ceiling. It is a reminder of the ceremony, and of the spirit which is bringing rain. It is important to note that the doll itself is not an idol. It does not serve as a magical item in ceremonies or in homes, but serves as a teaching tool in the society, indoctrinating the youth into an education of the Pueblo pantheon of saints.


Kachina Doll Carving and the Artworld

When Spanish missionaries first set sight on the Hopi’s kachina religion, it was first one of horror at the heresies of a non-Christian, and hence, “heathen” people. Western views later changed, as the dolls became a curiosity in the late 1800s. Scientists collected what they considered to be curios, artifacts of a primitive people. It was pure spectacle to them, and the carved tihu reminded them of the toys of their own children. The early collectors’s display provoked an even greater public curiosity in the carving. In the early 1900s, the Museum of Northern Arizona eventually held art shows featuring the craft, and began commissioning works with native carvers. It conducted carving contests, and set up the first kachina gift shop.(3)


Hopi art was never the same. The influence of colonial civilization had put a different kind of demand on artists. Artists began expanding the tools they used, and changing the look of the dolls to be more “action” oriented. Dolls no longer stood straight up with few carved features – they began to give the illusion of movement. New paints like acrylic introduced a more polished look. All together, the alien market forces created changes in the formal design of the doll making. The dolls began to conform not to the ritual context of their creation, but to a consumer market as collectors valued aesthetics over functional iconography. (4)


The Hopi were at first reluctant to sell their cultural figures. But their reluctance to sell soon became outweighed by their poverty – they needed other valuable merchandise like clothes and food. But the changes went beyond commercialization and the formal properties of the carving. The commodification of the sacred signified other changes in Hopi society. Dolls began to be signed by artists. This was a Western artistic convention that broke Hopi tradition. Children believed the dolls were made by the kachina themselves, not human artists. Women too began carving, breaking the cult tradition of the male craft. These types of breaks with tradition signified a breaking down of the entire Hopi culture into a culture conforming more to the conventions of the American art scene, a culture based on production rather than ceremony. (5)


There was another sort of break in Hopi culture via the artworld. Artists began to create carvings for the sales rack, while still carving traditional (not-for-sale) kachina for ceremonial use. This split indicates the introduction of another sort of idea – that of the profane. Traditional Pueblo society views everything as sacred and authentic, that nothing was false, that nature itself is kachina (life). Carving for the artworld leaves their work subject to the categories of that alien culture. It splits what is ceremonial from what is not, what is sacred from what is profane, what is traditional from what is falsely contrived to be a mimic, or mockery, of tradition.

Appropriation into the Global

All these changes signified the degeneration of a sacred image into an art object. The desacralization of the image by the market depotentiates the icon, forcing it to conform to the language games of the artworld. It became subject to the checklist of desirable aesthetics, as if on a field guide of “savage art.” It whittled the kachina to a mere craft confined to the empty halls of the taxonomist of Western art history – serving to validate the Western imperialist mind, which trivializes the sacred. Entire native cultures were now subjected to white science, to categorization, endless objectification and quantifiable scrutiny, encasing them in museums, those shrines to dead and dying cultures. This further served to obscure the representation of the sacred, clouding it in deception and misapprehension.


Art suffered in the postmodern capitalist system, undergoing a sort of pathological crisis of representation. Reality is not what it used to be, as language and symbols no longer carry authentic signification by themselves, but are subject to variable and unreliable language games in the post-structural sense of the term. Literary critic Frederic Jameson suggests this is not a deliberate move by philosophy, but rather a symptom of the age.(6) It is due to the cultural logic of late capitalism and the pressure of market forces which have degenerated art into a desperate imagophobia – from the once reliable depiction of forms to complete abstraction, and even anti-art.


In the Western apprehension of the Other, particularly in regards to cultures which bear closer proximity to traditional pre-modern societies, the comprehension of that Other is obscured by an incomprehension of the honesty of their art, the sacredness of ceremony, and the reliability of symbols in the archaic sense of the term. As a consequence, the kachina image has become divorced from any connection whatsoever to its ceremonial root. The original function is irrelevant here. Rather, kachina images have come to bear some vague reference to the Hopi themselves, to the Pueblo, to Arizona, or some vague notions of native peoples of the Southwest.


The spectacle of native art is well-documented in Zena Pealstone’s Kachina: Commodified and Appropriated Images of Hopi Supernaturals.(7) The picture book displays what are depictions of spirits on storefront murals, in gas stations, plastic souvenirs at the Suns game, bags of trail mix, and the like. It is common to see all sorts of vague kachinoid forms throughout Arizona. In an ironic turn, which turns this commodification full circle, there is even a Disney-produced Mickey Mouse comic book from 1973 called, “The Valley of the Kachinas.”


Cultural critic Jean Beaudrillard noted that Disneyland represented not only a popular Western form of storytelling, but signified a much broader American attitude.(8) Its depictions of world cultures as narrowly-defined stereotypes, neatly qualified into completely discrete and relative categories only served to buttress Western attitudes of supremacy. Consider Disney World’s Epcot Center, where world cultures can be “tasted” in boutiques and restaurants. They are sanitized, safe to sample, only because they are on a virtual stage, implicitly labeled inferior by its sheer existence and categorization. Epcot puts the hegemonic imperialist mind in one sanitized human zoo. Disney films tend to carry the same primitivist notions even to this day. In this perspective, it is not that Disneyland is so much a mere theme park in Anaheim or Orlando, but represents the West itself as a machine of the spectacular, converting cultures into stereotypical objects of exploitation.

As a corporate empire, the “Mouse Ears,” as it has come to be known, represents a key soldier in the quest for global capitalism. To the culturally sensitive, corporate entities like Disney symbolically encompass everything that is wrong with late capitalism. It is as though Mickey Mouse, as an icon of the West takes on the weight of this grand project, a kind of patron saint of hegemony. This nihilistic postmodern vision looks like the final images of Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket. The marine platoon staggers through the bombed, burning ruins of Vietnam. The marines sing the Mouseketeer song acapella. The Greeks sang hymns to Athena while driving off the Persians. The American cadence celebrates a different icon, “M-I-C-K-E-Y, M-O-U-S-Eeeee.”(9)


Appropriation into the Local

A Mickey Mouse kachina rests on a shelf behind a plate of thick glass in the Menil Museum. The critical complications are abundant, but not clear. Why would a Hopi carver do this? This may have less to do with how the West appropriates the global cultures in a stereotypical Disneyfication, but more to do with how the local community responds to globalizing media.

The cynical view of this act would be to assume that the carving is in the category of pop art. It serves as an artifact depicting the consumer objects which only later would be made famous by Andy Warhol’s Campbell’s soup cans, Brillo boxes, and the like. It stands a miniature monument of the omnipresence of globalized media, reflecting back to a society its own nihilistic, meaningless consumer culture.


All postmodern art follows this way in that its abstract, or ironic, qualities are divorced from significance, and subject to astonishingly wide interpretation. Interesting here is how quickly the kachina art devolved from a sacralized, ecclesiastical act, into a totally secular art form. It is not unique to the Hopi nation, or even to the exploitation of premodern cultures by the curious of the modern one, but a case in how art, all art, devolved from once sacred signification on cave walls into mere ideological and commercial manipulations. The kachina case shows this process occurring in a very condensed period of time, like a time-lapse motion picture depicting the blooming and wilting of a flower in a matter of seconds.

This view, however, indicates a western sort of logic and historicism. It displays the mind of a philosophical artist in protest, something in the order of the enigmatic Warhol himself. This cynical view also would constitute that anonymous Hopi carver’s own contempt for his own culture through participating in Western artworld categories, laying down tradition to the demands of market forces, and becoming complicit in the task of turning traditional sacred objects into mere spectacle, only servicing the disguise over the Real.

Futhermore, this interpretation does not escape Western art categories. It suggests that the Hopi too are blindly subject to capitalist injunctions. It assumes that nothing of the traditional Hopi creative mind remained after the encounter with modernity, and that carvers became assimilated into “artists” in a hegemonic project.

If the Mickey Mouse kachina is meant to be an ironic act of protest in the Warholian sense of mocking culture, it remains a complicit actor in the perplexities of the hegemonic project. It also assumes an implicit counterculture to the injunction, which ideology relies on as well, as late capitalism now requires its own ironic self-mockery. It persists even though it cannot take itself seriously. Finally, however, this remains a rigid Western categorization. It is banal in its nihilism. And if that were not enough to reject this approach altogether, it offers no empathy for the Hopi worldview.

The Hopi are more flexible than some might suspect. Harold Colton noted that the “Hopi do not feel it necessary to pigeon-hole their information as we do.”(10) That is to say, their art forms seem to already have had a remarkable adaptability to them. New kachinam could be perceived, since the tradition held that the dead could go to the underworld and become messengers. Some anthropologists indicated that there was a continual expansion in the varieties of katchinam in the carving tradition. This kind of flexibility is due to the flexibility of the oral tradition.

Perhaps the carver is responding to Mickey Mouse in a completely different way. What Disney means globally may not be what it means locally, at a grassroots level, much less for a single artist among all of the Hopi people. The poor are known for their resourcefulness, turning the junk of the production culture into creatively reinvented treasure. Say, for instance, how old tires are used for swings, or sandals. In the South, it is common to see old washing machines and mowers, and the like, rusting in the yard, becoming a junk heap, portentously possessing a new needed item. Production items even become tools in sacred acts and arts. Coke bottles become placed on trees in the South, in connection with Creole superstitions and folk religion. The same can be said true for intellectual or artistic production items, like cartoon figures.


The Mickey Mouse of 1927’s short film “Steamboat Willie,” which introduced the famous Disney icon, presented a very different time in history. Disney was not yet a mega-corporate empire, but a simple animator named Walt. His mouse character was originally depicting a working class stooge in the depression. Mickey was a trickster character in the best sense of the term – subversive and spirited, cleverly outwitting stronger foes and corporate pigs. What Mickey was to become a symbol of is another matter. What is significant here is that as “Steamboat Willie” and the like early films of Disney circulated, it may have resembled folk tales in the Pueblo tradition. In a sense, they may have seen the cartoon and appropriated the image of Mickey Mouse as their own in relation to the folk tale of Tucson Homichi, the warrior mouse who with his sheer wit, killed a chicken hawk for the Pueblo people.(13) Strangely, perhaps even here, Mickey takes on a social importance as a cultural underdog, an icon of the anti-establishment. Nonetheless, appropriation does not occur only in one way and may indicate deeper connections than at first glance.


Earlier, I discussed how the West misappropriates native traditions, a fact to which the culture is becoming increasingly sensitive to because of developing Western notions of cultural and intellectual property. The increasing concern about the piracy of media, black-market media proliferation, and the over-consumption of goods (increasing cultural repulsions regarding weight, smoking, drugs, etc.) indicates some sort of braking mechanism in the capitalist psyche, and ultimately a stricter concern over privatized boundaries, property, and authorship. This is driven by a liberalist tyranny of a politically-correct sensibilities in the culture, as people become aware of what comes from where, and who has rights to what kind of language and expression.

The Hopi reverse these views of property and ownership, presenting a unique view. They are less likely to view property along the lines of Western meanings of ownership. Rather, as Victoria Spenser notes, “The Hopi view property (be it land, a story, or song, or ritual paraphernalia) as a resource, something to be used, not owned – something for which there is a sense of stewardship rather than ownership.”(14) The Hopi have been open about their culture, and allow outsiders to witness their ceremonies on the mesa. They believe that every living thing should have access to their traditional communication with the sacred. The recent cultural outcry against the misappropriation of their cultural property has made their culture again change, and begin to claim legal rights for their intellectual and cultural property. Hopi remain split on the issue, signaling an internal discourse on these ethical matters.

Wallace Youvella, Sr., a nephew of the current kachina cult elder, issued a public statement at one of these ceremonies in 2001, denouncing the disrespect of the traditions. vi He objects to the exploitation they have suffered, not because of the proliferation of the art, but because the secrets of the kachina cult have become compromised by the leaks to the outsiders. He was upset, for instance, about a Marvel comic book in the 1990s which revealed secrets of the kachina that only initiates should know. Of course, the elders believed that this leak meant the world became initiated into the kachina cult secrets. They view such information as privileged and earned, and would whip a traitor of the secret. One must work for access to sacred information. It cannot just be proliferated willy-nilly. Youvella concluded his statement, saying, “Where do we stop the exploitation of the word “kachina?” Many of you understand what the word actually means. Life, simple – kaci. Look inside yourselves and at least understand that much about it.” (15)

A More Original Move

Perhaps the carver recognized something else in our traditions that we ourselves were ignorant of. Perhaps the Hopi encountered spirit and the religious imagination with a sense of playfulness the West lacks, or, at least, that the serious student of postmodern aesthetics lacks. Perhaps the carving transcends this cynicism, relishing the divine play of the spirits calling joyful attention to the larger universal of the mythic imagination. In this reading, the Mickey Mouse kachina is a prophetic object of redemption, a surreal masterwork reconciling the embattled opposites in modernity, signaling the end of history and foretelling the persistence of the imagination, that long-sought ambrosia of all culture.

Perhaps the carver recognized the efforts of the simple animator (“ensouler”) in Walt Disney to appeal to the child’s natural spirituality and imagination, the ability to suspend disbelief and enter enchantment through the simple magic of making drawings come to life in the nickelodeon.

The Hopi, in educating their children in ceremonial life, indeed in their mythology, relied in large part on their ability to create a richly textured reality of magic and enchantment for their children. This communal performance nurtured the children in a world of naive spiritualism, communing with the neverland of the mundo imaginalis. In a sense, it is not unlike Disneyland, and Walt’s attempt to recreate a magical kingdom of his own fantastic imagining. In this interpretation, the Disneyland actors in the plush Mickey Mouse costumes become the West’s version of kachina dancers.

Considering another important attribute of the Hopi ceremonies further advances this other interpretation. Every few years, at the Powamu, or Bean Dance, the youth aged from around eight to ten are taken into the kivas with the kachina dancers. There, they remove their paraphernalia, and expose their true identities as the fathers, uncles, older brothers and cousins of the children. The youth are just then whipped ritualistically, a painful physical reminder to accompany the powerful shock of the disillusionment from the world of magical thinking. The elders begin then to tell the initiates that the actual spirits no longer roam among the people like they used to in the beginning times, but they make these ceremonies to keep in contact with the spirits.

Sam Gill amplifies the thinking behind this ceremony as, “The experience of disenchantment initiates the world-creating and world-discovering human into cultural processes we know as religion. It stimulates inquiry, thought, creativity, wonderment, and the eventual formation of the sense of the religious world.”(16) The Hopi rite of disillusionment is not hopeless, but lets him in on the “behind the curtain” aspect of production, advancing the individual’s perception of the world. What was a childish concrete manner of thinking of things becomes a more abstract way of knowing. It prepares the person to take on an important theological, ritual, and civic responsibility in order to maintain the culture. As such, it is a device of transcendence. It moves beyond the binary opposition of illusion and the real, revealing the illusion of reality and the reality of illusion. All that remains is the awe of nature.

A similar kind of disillusionment is occurring to the West as Modernity continues its suicidal implosion. It is a near-reversal of the Hopi initiation ceremony. For a culture obsessed with rationalism and radical materialism, a re-enchantment is called for, a revitalization of the mythic worldview, a lunar consciousness.


If we return to the Hopi worldview, we transcend our own materialistic thinking and Western obsession with categories. We transcend the obsession with commodities by re-imbuing them with the magical perspective of the natural world, and begin to view the system of objects animistically. It is there in the doll, the spirits of wood, soil, and feathers. It recalls an archaic Gnostic notion that the energy of the goddess, Sophia, is trapped in the material. Seeking this reconciliation, we begin a revival of viewing the world of the material as integral to the spiritual, hermeneutically breaking down Western artistic categories and the postmodern crisis of meaning. This is only done with the rehabilitation of the natural, which ontologically insists on its own legitimacy.


The Mickey Mouse kachina is essentially a hybrid joining worlds with nothing but the startling originality of the imagination. It is a syncretized image of redemption in defiance of prejudicial categories, standing beyond old judgments and critical approaches. In the Mickey Mouse kachina, we see self and other redefined, a contrast no longer holding tension. It is not an either/or, but a both/and. It is a mutually subversive artifact – anti-establishment, and anti-primitivist. It is not White, and not Hopi, but refers instead to an as-yet-unknown third. The mutual subversion leads to a mutual affirmation of the both from an autonomous perspective. It is an artifact divorced from origins, like a free-floating autonomous thing, representing none of the cultures, but the thing itself, a fusion, a hybrid of the natural order.


In the end, The Mickey Mouse kachina remains a grotesque witness to the surreal, a realm of nonsensical juxtaposition, beguiling both the linear reason of the West and the mythopoesis of the Native, leading one only into a terrible void of the Real. It travels in the procession of time, throughout all simulacrum, as an exile, a pilgrim journeying to some distant future home. That future, where there is no self or other, but a unified matrix without signification, and paradoxally possessing all signification, beyond the binary distinctions of the sacred and the profane, the ideal and the material. It is a witness and testament to the endless playfulness of forms, the Absolute as the coyote making this world.



1) “Witnesses to a Surrealist Vision,” (The Menil Collection, opened Aug. 9, 1999).

2) Charles E. Adams. The Origin and Development of the Pueblo Katsina Cult ( Tucson, AR: U of Arizona, 1991).

3) J.J. Brody, “Katchina Images in American Art: The Way of the Doll,” Kachinas in the Pueblo World. Ed. Polly Schaafsma. (Abuquerque, NM: UNM Press. 1994).

4) Ibid.

5) Barton Wright, “The Drift from Tradition,” Katsina: Commodified and Appropriated Images of Hopi Supernaturals, Ed. Zena Pearlstone, (Los Angles: UCLA Fowler Museum. 2001): 146-157.

6) Frederic Jameson, Postmodernism: Or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. (Durham,
NC: Duke, 2005).

7) Zena Pearlstone, (Editor), Katsina: Commodified and Appropriated Images of Hopi Supernaturals (Los Angles: UCLA Fowler Museum, 2001).

8) Jean Beaudrillard, Trans. Sheila Faria Glaser , Simulacra and Simulation. (Ann Arbor:
Michigan, 1994).

9) Stanley Kubrick (Dir.), Full Metal Jacket. (Warner Brothers, 1986).

10) Colton, Harold S. Hopi Kachina Dolls. (Albuquerque, NM: UNM Press., 1959): 6.

11) Edward Kennard, Field Mouse Goes to War: Tuson Homichi Tuwvota: A Bi-Lingual Hopi Tale. (Palmer Lake, CO: Filter Press, 1999).

12) Spencer, Victoria. “Intellectual and Cultural Property Rights and Appropriation of Hopi Culture.” In Katsina: Commodified and Appropriated Images of Hopi Supernaturals. Ed. Zena Pearlstone. (Los Angles: UCLA Fowler Museum. 2001): 171.

13) Wallace Youvella, “Conference Statement,” Katsina: Commodified and Appropriated Images of Hopi Supernaturals. Ed. Zena Pearlstone. (Los Angles: UCLA Fowler Museum. 2001): 180-181.

14) Ibid,: 181.

16) Sam D. Gill, “Disenchantment: A Religious Abduction,” Readings in Ritual Studies. Ed. Ronald L Grimes, (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1996): 237.