A Journey into the World of Native American Pottery

We who are clay blended by the Master Potter, come from the kiln of Creation in many hues. How can people say one skin is colored, when each has its own coloration? What should it matter that one bowl is dark and the other pale, if each is of good design and serves its purpose well? - Polingaysi Qoyawayma, Hopi
A polychrome ceramic bowl made about one thousand years ago
A polychrome bowl
from the Salado Culture

Pottery has a sensuality to it, a physical and emotional feel. There is also a spiritual element involved as for virtually all traditional potters, there are prayers being uttered throughout their process, different prayers for each stage of their process, from before the digging of the clay to after the firing. And nearly all will tell you they are only trying to do what Mother Clay asks of them.

Most of the story that follows in this website is centered around the Pueblo people of the Southwest. They have populated the same mountains, valleys and deserts for more than two thousand years. As they developed agriculture and became a sedentary people they developed a pottery tradition. That began more than 1500 years ago and it has grown over the years since. Archaeologists trace the migrations of the people by the styles and designs on the potsherds they left behind, and they left ruins all over the countryside. In some cases, dates of innovations in shapes, designs, technology and methods of decorating can be determined down to the decade several hundred years ago. Today, Pueblo pottery has become a highly collectable art form as designs and shapes have proliferated and quality risen sky-high. That's what this website story is about: what this art is, how it came to be, who makes it now.

The quality of a culture's pottery indicates a lot about the maturity and prosperity of the culture that developed it. When times are good, pottery develops many different styles and forms. Surface decorations also develop and proliferate. When times are not so good we see less pottery, and it's often of less quality. Sometimes we also see the merging of different lines, such as when many Hopi migrated to Zuni in the late 1800's to wait out a drought and a smallpox outbreak in their homeland. When the Hopi returned to their mesas, the potters brought the use of the Zuni white slip with them. Many Hopi-Tewa potters were still trying to adapt the Hopi version of that white slip while Nampeyo was perfecting her process with Jeddito yellow clay and using ancient designs from Sikyátki and Awatovi. When her art took off in the marketplace, many other Hopi-Tewa potters switched over to what she was doing while a few modified their process with the Hopi white slip and achieved a result that compared much better with the Jeddito yellow clay results: Jeddito yellow clay has no slip, it gets polished and decorations are applied directly to the clay body before firing. Some of the coloring of Jeddito yellow clay pieces comes from variations in the firing process. The Hopi (Naha/Navasie, these days) white slip process creates a very white canvas to paint mostly red and black decorations on (although some use other colors, too). Helen Naha finally perfected the process in the early 1950s and taught her children how to do it. Care is taken in firing to allow no color variation from the fire. That said, pottery made the new way with the white slip is much harder to work with.

Different from many other art forms, pottery is something you can pick up and feel. If you are really sensitive and in tune, you can often feel the energy of the potter who made it... It's a phenomenon I especially see when "in tune" people touch pieces made by someone like Nampeyo of Hano. I've seen it with pieces made by other potters, too, but I have seen the phenomenon most pronounced with Nampeyo's pottery. For that matter, when working to ascertain who really created any older Hopi piece we have achieved the best results by asking descendants of various Hopi potters to offer their opinions.

"That pot was made by Grace [Chapella]. She lived next door to Grandma. Grandma used to baby sit Grace as a kid, then she taught her how to make pottery." This is from a great-great-granddaughter of Nampeyo of Hano after she looked over a maybe 100 year old unsigned pot that might have been made by Nampeyo. The piece was missing that extra coil of clay around the opening, the decorations were similar to but had embellishments that were not normal for Nampeyo and the spirit in the clay was not Nampeyo's.

A map showing ancient cultures in the American Southwest
Areas of influence of Ancient Cultures
in the American Southwest

Native American pottery has a legacy dating back at least 3,500 years. It's still a mystery as to how someone discovered that clay, when heated to a high enough temperature, would transform into a solid, brittle object that holds its shape. Some scholars claim the technique was brought to the early Southwest by settlers from Mesoamerica. Others contend that pottery making originated independently in the Southwestern cultures. One possibility for the discovery of the technique is that early cultures lined their cooking baskets with soft mud that would dry and harden and create a better and more durable surface on which to cook. The archaeological record somewhat supports this theory as early vessels have been found with the imprint of woven baskets texturing their outer surfaces. But the technology of firing a clay shape to make a hard container seems to have appeared all across the southern part of the United States (from Florida to Arizona) about the same time.

Rodents can gnaw through a storage basket and quickly destroy any seeds or meals stored inside. A truly "hard" basket would stop that. A "hard" basket made for much more efficient cooking than a soft one, too. The idea was revolutionary and we can be sure it was opposed by those who made their living making and "selling" baskets. However, a "hard" basket can also crack or shatter. This trait made ceramic pottery a luxury to be enjoyed primarily by a more sedentary culture. The nomadic cultures of the Great Plains and the semi-nomadic Navajo, Ute and Apache of the Southwest never made much pottery, although some Navajo potters today are creating some beautiful pottery, sealing it like they would a basket using the ancient pine pitch covering technique. The Jicarilla Apaches, too, learned the basics of how to make micaceous pottery from potters at Taos and Picuris. There were native Navajo and Jicarilla Apache potters plying their craft several hundred years ago as their people became more agrarian and sedentary.

Some of the Pueblos (primarily in the Middle Rio Grande/Galisteo Basin area, near the ancient lead, silver and turquoise mines in the Cerrillos Hills) had discovered how to make glazes out of lead compounds and often coated utilitarian pottery with that before the Spanish invasion began. Bits and pieces of their pottery has been found from west of the Rio Grande to the Great Plains, from southern Colorado to northern Mexico. After the 1680 Pueblo Revolt, the Spanish claimed the lead mines for themselves, to make lead shot for their primitive cannons and guns. Except for the Zunis, the tribes were denied nearly all access and the nature of some of their pottery and its use changed almost overnight. The Zuni people had their own sources of lead-silver ore but when they saw what was happening in the Rio Grande area, they decided to lose that knowledge.

All the "recognized" early cultures of the Southwest: the Mogollon, Hohokam and Ancestral Puebloans made pottery. Archaeologists are pretty certain that most modern Puebloan potters are descendants of the Ancestral Puebloans but long and large migrations of families, clans and tribes occurred often over the last couple thousand years. About 800 years ago there was a movement of Mimbres potters north to the Acoma and Laguna areas. There was also a movement of Mimbres potters south to Casas Grandes and Paquimé in Mexico as it appears a bad drought forced them out of their homeland near the Gila Mountains. Around the same time, there was a movement north and east out of the Gila/Salt River Basin in central Arizona, to Tuzigoot and Montezuma Castle and to the Roosevelt Valley and Sierra Ancha Mountains. In that same time period the elites of Chaco Canyon were moving their capitol north to the area of Aztec. Within a hundred years Aztec and the Mesa Verde area were being depopulated as the drought wore on. Most of those people either went to the Hopi mesas or headed southeast toward the Rio Grande.

For some of them, the journey down to the Rio Grande itself took several hundred years, for others only a hundred years. The Upper San Juan Valley, the Jemez Mountains and the Pajarito Plateau caused most of them to make several decades-long stops along the way.

Around 1350 a village we now call "Pottery Mound" began to grow along the Rio Puerco in central New Mexico. Those first villagers might have been Mimbres people, moving north from the Gila Mountains area. They could just as easily have been Tiwas from Isleta meeting up with migrants from the Salado pueblos in Arizona. However it happened, Pottery Mound was a melting pot of ideas and spirituality at a time when new clans were emerging among the Pueblo people.

Between about 1395 and 1415 CE, migrating groups from Acoma and Zuni arrived at Pottery Mound. Between about 1405 and 1435, migrating groups arrived from the Antelope Mesa area of Tusayan (the region of the Hopi mesas). Excavations at Pottery Mound have shown it to have been a melting pot of shapes, forms and designs. Some types of pottery never left town, other types were offered in trade for hundreds of miles around. When the village was abandoned, between about 1475 and the early 1500's, families and clans with their potters returned to wherever they had come from before (except the Mimbres: they seem to have gone mostly to Acoma, Laguna and Isleta). Those migrants took what had developed at Pottery Mound back home with them and built on it from there.

Techniques such as slipping and painting a vessel were well developed 800 years ago and have changed little even today. The pueblo potters suffered a severe hit under the onslaught of Spanish colonization. In the aftermath of the Spanish reconquest of New Mexico in the later 1690s, the potters who'd had access to lead-silver ores and made glazed pottery lost that access. The Spanish claimed all lead-silver sources for the manufacture of lead shot for their weapons. That was the end of a profitable business for the potters near the Cerrilos Hills. Within a few years the Southern Tewas of the Galisteo Basin had relocated to First Mesa in Hopiland. The people of Cochiti and Santo Domingo were able to restart their pottery-making process using different surface treatments and designs. The people of San Felipe didn't. Within a few years there was no design vocabulary at San Felipe: they were making only a few utilitarian pieces, trading instead with Zia for most of their pottery needs.

A lot more was forgotten when the Euro-American pioneer push westward nearly destroyed what was left of the art of pottery-making in the pueblos. Cheap and easy-to-use glazed vessels and metal cookware became available in quantity to the Puebloans when traders and then the railroads began to infiltrate the Southwest in the later 1800's.

One story that has been little told is of how the onslaught of American "anthropologists", "ethnographers", "archaeologists", "collectors", traders and missionaries removed so much of the history and patrimony of the Southwestern tribes that some have none left. There is more ancient and early contact Native American pottery hidden in the basement of Harvard's Peabody Museum than there is on display anywhere. So much was removed from the pueblos that some have no traditional pottery to recover their past from.

At San Juan/Ohkay Owingeh, someone digging a house basement on the west side of the Rio Grande in the late 1920's stumbled across an old pueblo ruin with some whole pieces of pottery in it. That pre-contact pottery was used as a basis to determine a truly traditional Ohkay Owingeh pottery form and design vocabulary. At Hopi it was Nampeyo of Hano who essentially reconstructed shapes and designs from pottery found at the ancient sites of Sikyátki and Awatovi. She also brought in pre-contact designs from the Fourmile Ranch and Kayenta areas and combined those with designs found at Payupki (where the Sandias hid from the Spanish for 60 years, abandoned by 1745).

At most other pueblos, modern potters only have the designs they find on the ancient broken pot shards littering the ground around their villages to work with. And if the main village of the people has been forced to move since Spanish contact, there is precious little of that, either. Thomas Tenorio said he got his first designs from a book of Santo Domingo designs authored by Kenneth Chapman in the early 1900s. Josephine Nahohai was awarded an expenses-paid trip to the Smithsonian Institute and took her whole family along. They spent days copying ancient Zuni designs they found there. Other potters vie for the Durbin Fellowship to the School for Advanced Research. That offers them 90 days of artist-in-residence privileges. Most spend a good part of that time in the vaults, copying designs from ancient pottery found there.

Thankfully, Puebloan pottery is not now (nor likely ever was) a purely utilitarian item: in the pueblos, pottery has a spirit. It is a product of Mother Earth and her body forms the vessel and her bounty provides both the paints to decorate it with and the very need for creating the pottery in the first place. The children of Mother Earth who create pottery are aware of that spirit in the clay, in the paint, and ultimately in the synergy of the created vessel itself.

In the traditional way, there are songs and prayers to accompany each step in the process of creating a sacred pot. It begins with an offering of cornmeal to Mother Earth before digging any clay and ends with breathing life into the finished piece after the firing. And all pots are sacred, even the flawed and broken ones. It is the awareness of this spirit that has kept pottery-making from being lost completely in favor of lesser spiritual quality but more durable and efficient wares.

A black and white Mimbres bowl full of geometric design
A Mimbres bowl preserved at
the Reitberg Museum in Zurich

While the Puebloans were treated brutally by the Spanish and their priests, enslaved and forced to convert to Franciscan Catholicism, their religion and their culture was not completely stamped out. Their spiritual practices, their languages and their cultures went underground. Most have endured with little change over the centuries.

When the United States took possession of the Southwest from Mexico in 1848, they largely ignored the pueblos as the pueblos were seemingly not as warlike as the nomadic Apache, Comanche, Kiowa and Navajo. They didn't terrorize homesteaders and settlers like the nomadic tribes did. The Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo also confirmed the pueblos as distinct sovereign entities officially recognized by the United States Government. Each had that kind of agreement in place with Spain and Mexico long before the Americans arrived.

It's only in the most recent decades that the Puebloan culture has been truly threatened. As tiny islands in the ocean of an alien culture, the Pueblos are finding their youth less willing to learn and speak their native tongues, less willing to learn the traditional techniques of living in harmony with the earth, and less willing to learn the complex and morally strict rites of the kivas.

Despite this trend, Pueblo pottery-making is in the middle of its greatest renaissance. The arrival of the new Euro-Americans created another function for pottery as it became a salable commodity on a scale never known before. The basic beauty in the shapes, forms and decorations of Puebloan pottery was not lost on the new settlers and traveling Easterners. Potters found the market for their wares growing in the twentieth century, but they had to get past the impression made by the quickly made and poorly painted "tourist pot" of the early twentieth century.

The "tourist pot" had come about as employees of the railroad barons solicited the potters of Acoma, Zuni and Hopi to churn out thousands of pieces of decidedly inferior quality. The art of pottery-making declined to being a basic mechanical function in the pueblos and soon, even the highest quality, well-made pieces themselves sold for next to nothing. It was individual traders who personally encouraged the potters to make more pieces of the quality of the vessels normally used in Pueblo ceremonies. The early traders were always the buffers and liaisons between the cultures and they played a tremendous role in cultivating general American appreciation for Native American art. Then again, there were some individual traders who essentially steered a pueblo's potters into making what became a progressively inferior (and dead-end) product, such as happened at Tesuque Pueblo with Jake Gold and the Rain Gods.

A black and white Mimbres bowl with geometric design and a stylized fish figure
A Mimbres bowl preserved at
the Reitberg Museum in Zurich

Before 1950 only a few Native American potters signed their work. In their own communities, the forms and designs of their pieces made identifying the work of a master potter easy. Regionally, traders, collectors and museums also learned to differentiate these pieces.

In the twentieth century benefactors from each of these categories organized a campaign to make the artistry and beauty of these vessels and their creators known to the world. Formal judging contests such as the Gallup InterTribal Ceremonial and the prestigious Santa Fe Indian Market that awarded ribbons and prizes for exceptional artistry began to have an impact. The early success and recognition of San Ildefonso Pueblo potter Maria Martinez at the St. Louis, San Diego, & Chicago World Fairs began to open the door for other exceptional Native American potters. In the last decades of the 20th century the art and names of Pueblo pottery artists like Maria Martinez, Lucy Lewis, Christina Naranjo, Fannie Nampeyo, and Margaret Tafoya became known worldwide. Modern exhibitions like the Seven Families in Pueblo Pottery, permanent recognition in important museums around the world, and the marketing techniques of the traders and other Native American arts dealers has further cemented these names and the names of many, many other fine and deserving potters, both historic and contemporary, in the annals of art history.

As you look through this site you'll quickly see that each pueblo has its own style of pottery and designs, even when it comes to "contemporary" designs. Further, each potter and family of potters has its own styles and designs. Each succeeding generation sees potters becoming more and more specialized in their products: storyteller makers don't often make large jars, and vice versa. Everyone does traditional designs but not everyone incorporates contemporary designs. And slowly the electric kiln is creeping in...

PS: As I lift my eyes to the horizon (from almost strictly Puebloan pottery) I'm looking into pottery that has been produced by other Native American people. The distribution is from one end of the continent to another. That said, most lost their pottery traditions long ago, often in the periods of disruption following the invasion of Euro-Americans and the ensuing upheavals and forced migrations. Only now is some of the tradition being restored.

PPS: After all the above is said, there is still a lot unsaid. In the old days, the making of pottery was a community endeavor. Clay was sacred and belonged to the clan and the community, not to any individual. The clay was worked together with the potters teaching each other and innovating together. Someone who was judged better at making water jars was in charge of making water jars, and passing that knowledge on to the next generation. Same for those who made bowls, cooking pots, storage jars and utensils. Decorating those pieces was the final touch before firing them. Firing was another part of the process shared among the potters.

This method of producing finely decorated utilitarian and ceremonial pottery was still practiced in the pueblos into the early 1900's. It was only after pieces began to be made for the commercial market and began to be signed by individual potters that everything changed. Today's potters are just as eager to share their knowledge as the potters of old. The problem is there are so few who want that knowledge shared with them.

Disclaimer: This website is a living work, meaning it's a work in progress. For me, this is a journey of learning. Additions and modifications to the content and the story happen regularly so at any time, anything might be erased, reworded and/or expanded, should I come across more or better information.

Map of the Native American Reservations in the southwest
Map of Native American Reservations in the Southwest
Photos and maps are in the public domain