These unique Hopi artworks are called Katsina dolls but the Hopi call them tihu. Katsinas are actually stylized religious icons, meticulously carved from cottonwood root and painted to represent figures from Hopi mythology. Due to the porous quality of the cottonwood root, they seal the doll with clay before painting. Each color has a meaning. North is yellow, west is blue-green, south is red, and east (a more sacred direction) is white. Black is added for the zenith and gray for the nadir. For generations, these figurines have been used to teach children about their religion.
The Katsinas are a major part of their religion. They believe that things in this world have two forms- the visible object itself and the spirit counterpart. This dualism balances mass and energy. Katsinas are the spirit essence of everything in the real world.
For ceremonies, men of the tribe will dress up as the Katsinas. When they put on the masks, they become a mediator to the Katsina. This power makes the masks sacred. However, these dolls were not considered sacred and were originally used as gifts and awards and were often sold and traded.
Authentic katsina dolls are made only by Hopi artists. There are plenty of other tribes with their own figurine-carving traditions, but the katsina tradition is unique to the Hopi. Genuine katsina dolls are made by only a small number of Hopi carvers who have dedicated their lives to this art. It takes years of practice and religious study to master katsina carving. Within Hopi mythology, the katsinas are said to live on the San Francisco Peaks, near Flagstaff, Arizona. Over 250 different katsina have been identified across pueblo cultures.