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Keeping track of things the Hopi way

“Cactus Katsina” by Donald Sockyma (Dawa Sun.)

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

Katsinas emerge from the spirit world in clouds, showering the blessings of rain on the Hopi people.

Donald Sockyma (Dawa Sun) grew up hiking and carving cottonwood root at the Hopi Pueblo village of Kykotsmovi (Third Mesa), selling his work for as little as $3.

“We call them flat dolls,” he said of his earliest katsinas. “We used real feathers, so they were easier.”

Today Sockyma carves intricately detailed katsinas – including the feathers – painted in acrylic watercolor. He has won multiple awards at both the Heard Museum Guild and Indian Market and the Santa Fe Indian Market. Last year, his owl katsina took first place at Santa Fe and his Chaveyo Ogre katsina was a top five finalist at this year’s virtual market.

Donald Sockyma (Dawa Sun) carving a katsina. (Courtesy of the artist)

Sockyma learned carving techniques from his father, Bennett, a carver in his own right. He remembers watching his father carve figures he would sell in Sedona, Arizona, shops.

“I picked up the craft just by watching him,” he said.

He soaked in moving inspiration from watching the nighttime kiva dances that occur in March.

By the time he reached high school, Sockyma was carving at night and on weekends, refining a technique that landed him in adult shows at the Heard Museum.

“I used to buy my school clothes with that money,” he said.

Traditionally, parents use katsina dolls as teaching tools. They are the carved representations of the Katsinam, the spirit messengers of the universe.

Mothers give katsinas to Hopi girls, beginning in infancy, to help them learn about their responsibilities as women in the community.

“I did some research, and it dates back to the 18th century,” Sockyma said. “From the traditional style, the detailed masterpieces have evolved.

“It symbolizes a reminder of everything the katsinas have done for us,” he continued. “All the teachings and values to remind us of to keep track of things in the Hopi way.

“Katsinas are benevolent spirits,” he continued. “They travel on a cloud through the universe and drive them to the winter solstice.”

The Hopis dance to honor these spirit beings.

To live in the Hopi way is to be positive, Sockyma said.

“You try not to talk about people, and live your life in the right way and be happy all the time,” he said. “Treat people the way you would want to be treated.”

Today, Sockyma uses knives, files and even hacksaw blades to create his work. He has also improvised tools, attaching a small knife to a big stick to carve hard-to-reach areas.

“Chaveyo Ogre” by Donald Sockyma (Dawa Sun.) (Courtesy of the artist)

His “Chaveyo Ogre” depicts a disciplinarian plaza dancer, with his yucca whip and bulging eyes.

“He’s one of the few katsinas that will actually speak,” Sockyma said. “He’ll get mad at anything like trash on the ground or get people out of the way. All the little children are afraid of him.”

Carved in a single piece, the figure took months to complete.



“Turtle Katsina” by Donald Sockyma (Dawa Sun), (Courtesy of the artist)

His Turtle Katsina cradles an ear of corn for the Hopi corn rite. It stands on a base with a turtle.

Many Native American tribes believe the Earth is like a turtle with humans living on its back, Sockyma said.

“It represents the turtle’s connection to Mother Earth,” he said. The cactus spines locate the turtle in the desert.

“The turtles derived from aquatic areas, so they are the perfect spirit to give rain to our world,” he said.

With its feathered black halo, the Crow Mother is one of Sockyma’s bestsellers.

“She’s said to be the mother of all katsinas,” he said. “She appears every year during the months of February and March.”

The people honor her in the Bean Dance, Sockyma added, a blessing for the upcoming planting season. The Crow Mother holds a basket of seeds.

“Those are magic seeds,” Sockyma said, “and they’re prayed upon, and if you plant them they’re a blessing for the entire field.”

His Cactus katsina serves as another disciplinarian.

“He’ll use the yucca whips in his hands to scare people away,” Sockyma said. “He’s really a guard; a security guard.”

The Sun katsina, another bestseller with its feathered face, is Sockyma’s namesake. He hails from the Sun Clan.

“He’s a big deal in the Hopi deities,” the artist said. “Traditionally, we’re supposed to wake up at the crack of dawn. When you have something important to do, you’re supposed to pray to him and give him an offering of cornmeal.”

The blue in his mask represents the blue horizon.

“My last name means blue horizon,” he said. “It means the Earth’s energy is at its highest point.”

Sockyma expected the cancellation of the Santa Fe Indian Market due to the pandemic.

“We’re doing OK,” he said. “I guess I’m used to being quarantined. I spend all my day carving.”

His work can be found at and at

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