Niman Kachina Festival

Niman Kachina Festival (Niman Festival, Going-Away of the Gods, Going Home Ceremony)

Type of Holiday: Religious (Hopi)
Date of Observation: July
Where Celebrated: Arizona
Symbols and Customs: Kachinas, Masks
Related Holidays: Powamû Festival, Wuwuchim


The Niman Kachina Festival is part of the Hopi religious tradition. The history of this and other Native American cultures dates back thousands of years into prehistoric times. According to many scholars, the people who became the Native Americans migrated from Asia across a land bridge that may have once connected the territories presently occupied by Alaska and Russia. The migrations, believed to have begun between 60,000 and 30,000 B . C . E ., continued until approximately 4,000 B . C . E . This speculation, however, conflicts with traditional stories asserting that the indigenous Americans have always lived in North America or that tribes moved up from the south.

The historical development of religious belief systems among Native Americans is not well known. Most of the information available was gathered by Europeans who arrived on the continent beginning in the sixteenth century C . E . The Niman Kachina Festival

data they recorded was fragmentary and oftentimes of questionable accuracy because the Europeans did not understand the native cultures they were trying to describe and the Native Americans were reluctant to divulge details about themselves.

The KACHINAS are the ancestral spirits of the Hopi Indians. For six months of the year, they leave their home in the mountains and visit the tribe, bringing health to the people and rain to their crops. Their arrival in January or February is celebrated as the POWAMÛ FESTIVAL, and their departure in July is observed as the Niman Kachina Festival, with ceremonial dances at all four Hopi pueblos. These dances are actually the last in a series that take place throughout the six months when the kachinas are present in the pueblo.

The Hopi observe a ceremonial calendar in which the year is divided into two parts. According to tradition, during one half of the year the kachinas (nature, ancestral, and guardian spirits) live in the village and reveal themselves to the people through ceremonial dances. During the other half of the year, the kachinas separate themselves from the village and return to live in their homes in the mountains. The Kachina season begins around the time of WINTER SOLSTICE, as people begin to prepare the ground for planting, and it closes in late July with the bringing in of the first harvest.

In the Niman Kachina Festival, the masked dancers who represent the kachinas perform their dances in the plaza, pounding their feet rhythmically, chanting, and sprinkling sacred meal on the ground. Their arms are filled with green cornstalks-symbolic of the crops for which the tribe is so thankful-and some carry musical instruments made from hollow gourds painted yellow and green. Notched sticks are laid across the gourds, and the scapulae (shoulder blades) of deer serve as bows for these primitive fiddles. The dance is repeated at intervals throughout the day.

During the dance, a procession of men and women emerges from the kiva-a large underground room used for ceremonial purposes. These are the Hopi priests and priestesses. One carries an ancient water bowl from which he flings drops of water, symbolic of rain, with an eagle feather; one has a ceremonial pipe, from which he blows smoke, symbolic of clouds. The women place meal in each dancer's hand-another indication that the Niman Kachina is a ceremony of gratitude for the harvest as well as a going-away party for the ancestral spirits.

The dancers hand out gifts to the children: gourd rattles and bows and arrows for the boys, and kachina dolls for the girls. They also distribute baskets, bowls, or wash-pans filled with foods symbolic of the harvest-small ears of corn, peaches, melon, and other first fruits. Young Hopi women who have married during the year are barred from observing any ceremonial dances until the Niman Kachina, at which their attendance is required. They all wear the pure white wedding blanket made by the groom from native cotton and wool. This blanket is worn at all ceremonial occasions after the wedding, and when the woman dies, it serves as her burial shroud.

The kachinas don't actually depart until the second morning of the festival. There is a brief ceremony at sunrise that involves throwing meal, pouring water, and other symbolic acts. The priest stands at the top of the ladder that leads down into the kiva and offers a prayer. The masked kachinas leave the village by way of a trail leading west, disappearing just as the sun appears over the horizon.



The word kachina means "spirit." It applies both to the ancestral spirits whose arrival and departure are celebrated each year and to the men wearing MASKS who impersonate these supernatural beings. Men, animals, plants, stones, mountains, storms, the sky, and the underground all have spirits personified as kachinas, who come into the modern world carrying the legends of the Hopi past. Although the kachinas themselves are not gods, they act as intermediaries between mortals and the Hopi deities. Prayers for sun and rain, or for more children, are made to the kachinas in the belief that they will bring these appeals to the gods' attention.

Kachina also applies to the dolls carved out of cottonwood and painted, dressed, and feathered to look exactly like the Niman Kachina dancers. Children play with kachina dolls, which can also be seen standing on special altars erected around the time of the festival.

There are a number of legends concerning the kachinas' origin, most of which agree that the chief kachina was a badger who came from the underworld. Many of the ceremonies featuring kachinas are conducted in a language so ancient that even the participants do not understand it.


The kachina's most distinguishing feature is his mask or ceremonial helmet. The face may represent a bird, beast, monster, or man-or a combination thereof, with many variations in color. These masks usually bear symbols representing clouds, rain, or rainbows, since the Niman Kachina Festival takes place at a time of year when rain is apt to be scarce. The male kachinas often carry an object associated with the spirits they represent-for example, a bow and arrow, yucca whip, pine Niman Kachina Festival

branch, or feathers. The women kachinas, known as kachinamana, are represented by men as well. They wear wigs, with their hair styled in flat swirls over the ears known as squash-blossoms, a symbol of virginity.

Before the final kachina dance takes place, the masks are repainted and refinished with a ruff of feathers, fur, or spruce at the neck-spruce, according to the Hopis, having a magnetic attraction for rain. The remainder of the costume consists of a white ceremonial kirtle (kilt) and sash, with a turtle-shell rattle under the knee, moccasins, and jewelry. A fox skin hangs from the rear of the belt or sash-all that remains of the animal skins in which the Hopi kachinas once clothed their entire bodies.


Bellenir, Karen. Religious Holidays and Calendars. 3rd ed. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 2004. Fergusson, Erna. Dancing Gods: Indian Ceremonials of New Mexico and Arizona. New York: A.A. Knopf, 1931. Fewkes, Jesse Walter. Tusayan Katcinas and Hopi Altars. Albuquerque: Avanyu Pub., 1990. Heinberg, Richard. Celebrate the Solstice: Honoring the Earth's Seasonal Rhythms through Festival and Ceremony. Wheaton, IL: Quest Books, 1993. Henderson, Helene, ed. Holidays, Festivals, and Celebrations of the World Dictionary. 3rd ed. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 2005.
Holiday Symbols and Customs, 4th ed. © Omnigraphics, Inc. 2009