As winter begins to set in, the Hopi celebrate the changing seasons with a series of social dances known as the Paamuya. These dances allow them to honor the earth and prepare for the coming winter.

Paamuya, which means “wet moon,” begins in January. It follows the winter solstice ritual of Soyal, during which people welcome the return of the sun and invite the Katsinam, or spirit guides, to visit the village.

From Reverence to Joy

Soyal is a time of great reverence. It is a somber ceremony that bids welcome to the sun returning for longer days. In contrast, the winter social dances are a time to embrace joy. The festive, lively dances create beautiful, happy memories that will carry the villagers through the cold, dark nights of winter.

Through their dances, they pray for snow to fall. Snow allows the fields to absorb water, rest and grow strong for summer planting. They also pray for skill and luck at hunting.

As in all Puebloan rituals, Katsinam are a key element of these dances. The Katsina carvings are a physical symbol of the Katsina, the traveling spirits that the villagers now welcome.

Who Are the Katsinam?

The word Katsina means “spirit guide.”

In Hopi tradition, the Katsinam are spirits which take on physical form during ceremonies, rituals, and dances. Puebloans believe the Katsinam visit them from winter solstice through the end of July. Katsinam bring help, companionship, and gifts.

George Nasafotie, a ceremonial leader in the village of Songoopavi on Second Mesa, explains the connection in an interview with the University of Arizona:

“The word Katsina refers to several concepts. First, it refers to those members of the Katsina society who put on masks in order to become the essence of an associated spirit. In this way, the participant receives the powers which belong to the Katsina he embodies…The spiritual beings who members of the Katsina society impersonate are also called Katsina. There are hundreds of Katsina encompassing flora and fauna, the world of objects, of cosmic forces, of the essences of deceased individuals and of entire neighboring tribes.”

What Are Katsina Dolls?

Katsina dolls represent the spirits of various animals, plants, beliefs, emotions, dreams, and ideas. They are carved from the root of the cottonwood tree, painted and decorated.

These hand-carved figures are not toys. They are sacred symbols of the spirits that are present in every moment and every aspect of the Puebloan world.

Other Elements of Paamuya

During the dances, villagers exchange gifts of pahos or prayer feathers. These are usually small bunches of eagle feathers tied together with leather and sometimes decorated with small turquoise stones. Eagles are revered as sacred because they can fly into the spirit world to deliver messages.

Some of the winter dances are held during the daytime and are open to the public. Others take place in private, underground ceremonial sites known as kivas.

Use of Cornmeal by Katsinam

The Native Americans of the Southwest considered corn their mother. It follows that corn and cornmeal are essential to any ritual. Many Katsinam use cornmeal prior to beginning a ceremony. The cornmeal is sprinkled in the four cardinal directions. Cornmeal is also used to “open the kivas” and it is a staple in Hopi life.

As Phyllis Doyle Burns writes in the Owlcation blog, “No ceremony is ever conducted without cornmeal. The use of cornmeal in the ceremonies is so varied and so significant in meaning that it would be inconceivable if not included. Cornmeal, from Mother Corn, is the sustenance of life. Mother Corn is the same as Mother Earth to the Hopi. The Road of Life in the kiva is drawn with cornmeal.”

Celebrate Winter With Your Own Katsina

How are you celebrating the changing season? If you want inspiration in the form of Katsina dolls or other Native American works of art, please check out the wonderful selection at Kachina House.