Native Americans migrated to the Americas from Asia across the Bering land bridge during the last Ice Age. (The date is debatable: between 12,000 to 40,000 years ago according to the current thesis). The indigenous population has been estimated as high as 90 million in the mid 16th century. By 1990, one census claimed only 2 million and 26.3 million Native Americans lived in North America and Latin America respectively. Europeans discovered over 2,000 distinct languages in the Americas, but more than half have disappeared with many more endangered.
The indigenous peoples of the Americas are the Pre-Columbian inhabitants of North, Central and South America, and their descendants. In Spanish-speaking countries, for instance, Pueblos indígenas (indigenous peoples) is the common general term, whereas in Argentina, the term Aborigen (aboriginal or native) is often used, while in Guyana indigenous peoples are generally referred to as “Amerindian”. In Canada, they are commonly known as Aboriginal peoples, which includes First Nations, Inuit, and Métis peoples. In the United States of America, the numerous, distinct tribes and ethnic groups are known, generally, as Native Americans or American Indians, and Alaskan Natives. The terms indigenous peoples use to refer to themselves vary regionally and generationally.
Native American Puppetry
Researchers have discovered that finger puppets, hand or glove puppets, rod, string and body puppets, and even found object puppets played varied roles in the religious and social life of some Native American cultures. Historically, shamans used masks and puppets to aid their role as liaisons to the spirit world, to influence the spirits, or to convey an illusion of magical powers. Puppets can be found in several American museums including the National Museum of the American Indian, home of the Heye Foundation Collection (Washington, DC and New York City), the Museo Nacional de Antropología (Mexico City), and the Royal British Columbia Museum (Victoria, British Columbia, Canada).
Puppets were documented as early as the 16th century in Mexico among the Maya and Toltec. The Hopi of the Southwestern United States, the Kwakiutl of the Northwest Coast of North America, and the Inuit of the Arctic still perform ceremonies with puppets. There is some evidence of puppetry among the Zuni and Navajo (or Navaho, Navajo: Diné or Naabeehó) of the Southwest, as well as among select Native American cultures of the Plains and Woodlands.
In South America, documentation of Native American puppetry is slim. Theories are founded on analogies furnished by other cultural areas, notably Mesoamerica. Andreo Rodolfo Sirolli attributed some archaic clay heads similar to some put in play in Northwest Argentina as puppets.
Popol Vuh or El Libro del Consejo (The Book of Counsel), a mid-16th century document from the Quiché Maya culture, includes an allegory describing men as manikins made of wood who had no wisdom in their heads “ …before their manufacturers, their builders, their procreators, their animators”.
Bernal Díaz del Castillo, conquistador and companion to Cortez and author of Historia Verdadera de la conquista de la Nueva España (True History of the Conquest of New Spain, 1632), furnished the first description of Mexican puppets. Bernardo de Sahagūn, who died in 1590, reported a performance by a Toltec shaman who made a tiny figure dance in the palm of his hands, apparently a success as some of the marketplace crowd were trampled in the rush to see it.
Some bas-reliefs depict men that may have been manipulating puppets. A panel from Chinkultic (Chiapis, present-day Mexico, c.800 CE) shows a standing man with a doll hanging from his forearm. Alejandro Jara-Villaseñor conjectured that the scene represents puppetry or ventriloquism since the priest seemed to be speaking to the onlooker. The author also described a fire serpent from the Mexica Aubin Codex (or Codex Aubin, 1300-1521 CE), which seemed to be made of feathers and paper with a tongue that was moved up and down.
Archaeological sites revealed clay dolls with articulated limbs dated as early as 300 CE. These figures represent the Maya, Totonaca, Teotihuacan, Tlaxcalteca, Choluteca, and Mexica cultures and range from 5 to 50 centimetres (2 to 20 inches) in height. Natural fibres connected the separate limbs to the body. One figure ascribed to the Tonaca culture has a hole in its head, possibly to insert a cord or rod to manipulate the doll. The movable limbs of these dolls provoked the theory that they were puppets, but they could have been simply children’s toys.
The Southwest of the United States
In the Southwestern United States, the Hopi pueblo dwellers still hold religious ceremonies with masked men personifying kachinas or spirits. The men carve dolls representing the kachinas, which are safeguarded, because they bring benefits. They present them to women and girls, and very young boys.
Like the dolls, certain Hopi puppets retain the essence of kachinas. For example the Corn Maiden made to resemble the kachina S’alako. The manipulators hide behind a screen and control the puppets with strings to grind corn in a special ceremony. At one point, the manipulator grabs a brush with his hands to sweep the stone, but maintains the illusion that the puppet is doing it. The Corn Maiden puppets are given artificial hearts and are considered to be living and feeling beings. Before each performance, the puppets are renewed and given new hearts.
Like all farmers living in an arid climate, the Hopi perform rituals to bring rains; that is the function of the Water Serpent Ceremony, first documented in 1881: the manipulators hid behind a painted screen while poking water serpent hand (glove) puppets through holes in which Kooyemsis (Mudhead Clowns) opposed them in comical combat. Other kachina dancers wrestled with puppet serpents worn on their arms, wearing fake arms to complete the illusion.
In the Water-Vase Serpent Ceremony, water serpent puppets emerged from pots. Concealed manipulators controlled the puppets by strings hung over rafters as the Mudheads subdued the serpents.
In both the Corn Maiden Ceremony and the Water Serpent Ceremony, sandpiper puppets scurried back and forth along a rod perch at the top of the screens, controlled by strings. Their heads nodded as if pecking the corn meal fed them by kachina dancers. Reportedly, the puppet ceremonies still take place in the kivas, which are underground ceremonial chambers.
The nearby Zuni, inheritors of the same culture as the Hopi, carve kachina dolls. Although the dolls’ arms are articulated, there is no evidence they served in any performances. Another connection through illustrations is the Shalako (Zuni dancer hidden by cloth costumes while carrying a mask on a long pole), which may be classified as body puppet.
Among the Navajo, a neighbouring culture of the Hopi and Zuni, a ceremony was described in 1882 in which an eagle feather danced upright in a basket. A manipulator synchronized the feather with a boy dancer’s movements using concealed strings. A similar dance was reported to take place among the Hopi. An animated feather could be considered a found object puppet.
The Northwest Coast
Some Native Americans inhabit the Pacific shoreline from the Alaskan panhandle to Puget Sound (State of Washington). Their best-known ceremony is called the “potlatch”, documented from 1792. The potlatch validated the host’s rank and privileges, which included the right to wear certain masks, perform certain dances and recite certain legends. Potlatches, which usually last several days, include performances, lavish feasts, and donation of gifts. The Canadian government banned potlatches in 1884 on the recommendation of officials and missionaries anxious over the vast expenditures of wealth. Particularly among the Kwakiutl, the practice continued. The law was finally rescinded in 1951, and the United States Congress passed the American Indian Religious Freedom Act in 1978. Today, the Lelooska family performs Kwakiutl potlatches for the public, in Ariel (State of Washington).
Some puppets of the Northwest Coast Native Americans were mounted on masks of dancers who animated them with concealed strings. They represented the octopus, the dogfish, the two-headed snake, the heron, and the owl as well as articulated human figures. Articulated figures, including some representing corpses, were worn as headdresses. One example of a corpse puppet was worn on the dancer’s neck with the head of the puppet attached by a spring to give it incidental movement. Some articulated whales were also worn as headdress masks, and there is one type of huge articulated whale “mask” that was strapped to the dancer’s back.
Other puppets were independent of masks, particularly puppet birds which flew animated by strings hung over rafters, and others descended through the smoke hole. In one ceremony reported, a bird puppet stole the head of a human marionette and then returned it. Frogs and ducks with rollers were pulled with strings along the ground. Crabs had articulated claws and legs. A salmon puppet was seen to jump out of water and a whale puppet pulled by a canoe. With control strings hidden underground, human puppets popped up on cue from the boxes in which they were hidden. Some incredibly beautiful large human figures, with articulations for complex movement, could stride across the performance area. One such figure has flaps that open revealing an inner image hidden within its chest.
The flickering fire in the centre of the huge ceremonial room leaves shadowy corners, which hide the manipulators and make the strings virtually invisible. Underground tunnels facilitated miraculous appearances and disappearances. The shamans jealously guarded the mechanics of puppets and masks, contributing to the reinforcement of their powers. In the past, anyone who revealed the secrets could have been put to death.
The Arctic Zone
The Inuit inhabit the Arctic zone of North America. Mechanical figures were found among most Inuit groups, and are still seen today among the Yup’ik speakers of Western Alaska. In 1842, a Russian navy lieutenant witnessed puppets near St. Michael in a village ceremony that showed owls with flapping wings, gulls diving for fish and ptarmigans pecking at each other. Other witnesses tell of human figures that moved, talked and even walked across the room illuminated by oil lamps and candles.
Ceremonies to celebrate important occasions and ensure successful hunting were held in community houses. One carved ivory model depicts a ceremony in which a whale was raised and lowered attached to a string over a rafter. Figures like this qualify as puppets although some museum publications describe them as “dance objects”. Other examples include an owl with movable wings, a bird with human legs, a flying man, and another in a kayak. One photo of a contemporary ceremony includes a fully clothed life-size manikin controlled by strings. One dancer was seen manipulating an animal bladder with a painted face as if it were a hand puppet.
One Yup’ik contraption, named the “pretend” or “model universe”, may also be called a puppet. It consists of a number of rings connected to each other with rods. Decorated with feathers and down called “snowflakes”, it was shaken by cords suspended from the ceiling to the rhythm of the songs and drums, and decorating the rings some wooden figures appeared animated at times.
Some large masks worn vertically include full body carvings of whales. Other large masks including one of a large salmon were hung from the rafters, and dancers moved behind them. One 1.5 by 1.5 metre (5 by 5 foot) loon was described in which the dancer moved in the centre of the suspended “mask”. These masks could be considered as body puppets. Women danced with small masks on their fingers to enhance their movements, and these might be called finger puppets.
Plains and Forests
In other cultural areas of North America, only a few objects collected might fit the category of puppet. Among the Plains Native Americans, the Sioux carried sticks in their horse dance representing their war mounts. Among the Woodlands people, the Ojibwa had “juggler” dolls, and the Menominee had some human figures attached by strings to sticks.
It is permissible to think that there were other traditional arts of the puppet, beyond the few examples given here, among the many Native American cultures. The graphic sources (written in the case of the Maya) are rare or of a difficult interpretation, and the objects made of perishable materials were not preserved. However, those of the traditional societies which preserved and carried their art of the puppet to a high artistic level pose the fascinating problem of knowing which techniques of manufacture, which social functions, among other criteria, make it possible to say that a given object is a puppet or not.
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- Wardwell, Allen. Objects of Great Pride: Northwest Coast Indian Art from the American Museum of Natural History. NY: The Center for Interamerican Relations & the American Federation of the Arts, 1978.
- Wright, Barton. Hopi Kachinas: The Complete Guide to Collecting Kachina Dolls. Flagstaff: Northland Press, 1977.