Discover Vintage America — January 2012


Beloved Native American dolls

Dolls accurately recorded American Indian life

In the National Museum of American History in Washington, DC, is a black and white image of a beautiful Crow Indian girl with doll in a traditional cradle. The photograph was taken in 1888.

Like children everywhere, Native American children have loved to play with dolls over the centuries. In most cases, such dolls for them were fashioned by materials immediately available to them in forms of dress similar to their tribes.

“By mirroring a tribe’s use of ornament, accessories and clothing, the dolls accurately recorded Indian life,” notes Wendy Lavitt in the 1982 book American Folk Dolls.

Native American dolls enjoyed an innocence within the early indigenous culture, says doll expert Stuart Holbrook, in that “they were actually playthings rather than ceremonial presentations, therefore squarely within the romantic definition of dolls.” Holbrook is president of Theriault’s, (, in Annapolis, MD, which specializes in the appraisal and auction of antique dolls and childhood playthings.

Accounts as early as the 1500s tell of Native American children playing with dolls including some that had been brought from England. A leading auction house, Skinner Inc., reported selling a 19th century Native American doll in a European wax-over composition form with glass eyes. Originally from the Northeast part of America, it wore beaded leather clothing and cloth pucker-toe moccasins and a beaded leather peaked cap.

Examples of 19th century Plains Indian dolls might include beaded hide dress and moccasins, sometimes even with detailed necklaces and other ornaments. Some Central Plains dolls of the latter 19th century included costumes partly or fully made of buffalo hides. Some, like the historic 1888 photo, have been complete with doll-sized cradles.

Crow Indian dolls of the late 19th century have been found in wood form with muslin coverings and classic Crow beadwork. Other 19 century Crow doll examples have been in cloth form and display a varying extent of decoration.

Typically, existing 19th century Indian dolls are female, ranging from 10 to 15 inches in height, and made of regionally available materials. An exception was a late 19th century male Comanche recently sold at a major auction house. The doll was 31 inches in height and wore a traditional shirt, leggings and tin cone-decorated moccasins. It had bead eyes, and formed hands with figures sewn separately.

Early Eskimo Inuit Indian dolls were usually made of wood and leather and made to sometimes be carried in the parka. Like elsewhere, however, there were variations over the generations. Obviously materials varied with what was available at a given time and also with the talents and interests of a given doll maker.

“Difficulty lies in dating both American Indian and Eskimo dolls,” notes Holbrook. “In many cases exact production techniques were used for generations, creating this difficulty.”

Beverly Hungry Wolf, a member of the Blackfoot tribe, speaks about making dolls as a child in American Folk Dolls: “I used wires to start them, then I wrapped the wires to make their bodies, and then I dressed them in Indian clothes.”

Wolf adds, “Those of us who had the longest hair donated some of it to make hair for our dolls. Then the boys would hunt gophers and squirrels and skin them and we would make the little skins into clothing for the dolls.”

An early 20th century Cheyenne doll might have a cloth body, be wearing a beaded leather dress, and have wool yarn for hair. Depending on what was available to the maker, dolls of that period and region might have further decorations carved from real animal bone or teeth.

In recent years, Skinner Inc. sold at auction a rare Cherokee cloth doll in the image of an African-American slave. The female subject was wearing a cloth turban with a beaded decoration, and was holding a Cherokee baby in a wooden cradle. The seller estimated the doll was crafted during the early 20th century or before.

An early 20th century Lakota doll also was offered at the same event. From the Wistariahurst Museum, Holyoke, MA, the piece was wearing a full-yoke beaded dress with applied hair. It bore hand-drawn facial features and was wearing beaded early ornaments and a necklace. It was about 20 inches tall.

Still another example was a 1900s Central Plains Indian doll. It wore a woman-style breast plate, partially beaded dress and moccasins. It also had braided hair and face paint. The doll was just over 14 inches tall with a basic beaded hide form.

In 2004, American Indian Art Magazine featured a carved wood Northeast Indian doll on its cover. The doll had articulated limbs, face and hands. It was fully costumed with a buckskin shirt, leggings, and claw necklace along with a miniature headdress and miniature double-curved bow. From a private collection, the 14-inch doll was later sold at a nationwide auction.

Native American dolls weren’t only created and used as playthings. Some dolls were used as ceremonial objects in religious rites. For example, Hopi Kachina dolls, carved from wood, represent the spirits of nature, such as the corn maiden, the sun and the crow.

During the 1890s and early 1900s, European and American manufacturers also marketed their version of Native American dolls. In 1897, the J.D. Zernitz Company advertised Native American dolls, 10 to 15 inches in height, with bisque heads and glass eyes. Butler Brothers advertised similar dolls in 1910.

Today, all three types of Native American dolls remain cherished collectibles.

Robert Reed can be contacted at:


Kachina doll history

by Anne Gilbert

Made by Hopi and Zuni in the likenesses of the supernatural guardians of the tribes, Kachina dolls intrigued tourists who traveled to the Southwest as far back as the 1930s. Tourists who witnessed ceremonies where adult males represented kachinas in song and dance wanted souvenirs. The small dolls, measuring from 8 to 22 inches, began to be collected.

In the 1930s, anthropologists began studying the dolls, learning what they could from the Hopi. Among the things they learned is that the kachina was given to little girls, carved by their biological father, as one of their first objects with spiritual importance. As infants they received several flat dolls, with featureless heads.

As the child grew, the dolls or “tihu” became more realistic and detailed. By the time the girl was in her teens she no longer received dolls for good behavior. Supposedly her rewards would be in the form of prosperity and health.

The dolls were thought to represent unseen spirits who possessed spiritual powers: the spirits appeared in the actual world as plants, birds, animals and clouds. Wolves and eagles were popular. There are hunter and guard kachinas, warriors and mud head clowns in many forms. One of the oldest types is the buffalo kachina. The costumes were made of buffalo hide, with and without the wool. They were topped with a large, wooden buffalo head. Sometimes Kachinas represented neighboring tribes.

Though dolls have been discovered dating to the early 19th century, examples of their likenesses have been found on Kiva murals and ancient pottery dating to the late 1300s.

CLUES: Contemporary kachina artists sign their works and many sell for several thousand dollars. These are often decorated with acrylics. And, many of these contemporary carvers create sculptured kachinas that rely on the natural form of the cottonwood root and the look of the graining. Other new artists are working in the old turn-of-the-century style using tools of that time.

Carved figures made in the 1930s and 1940s had carved fingers, and elaborately carved and painted headdresses. Garments were made of cloth and leather. Belts and sashes were painted with watercolors, not made of materials.

Do you need more information on an antique or collectible item? For a personal reply, send a photo, history, size, signatures and $25 to Anne Gilbert, P.O. BOX 740136, Boynton Beach, FL 33437-0136.


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