The Santa Clarans are descendants of the residents of Puyé, a group of mesa top and cliff dwellings located about 10 miles northwest of today's pueblo (but still on reservation land). The present pueblo was established in the mid-1500s to get the people closer to the Rio Grande in a time of severe drought.
Francisco de Coronado's men first encountered the Santa Clarans in 1541 but the pueblo didn't have any of the gold the Spanish were looking to steal so the tribe was left alone for a few more years. Missionaries did eventually arrive and they had built their first mission church by 1622. It was destroyed during the Pueblo Revolt of 1680.
When the Spanish returned in 1692, the Santa Clarans joined with their San Ildefonso cousins and resisted the Spanish from the top of nearby Black Mesa. They held out until 1696 but as it got clear they were slowly losing the fight, many members of the pueblo escaped and went west to join the Hopi and Zuni. Most, but not all of them had returned to the pueblo on the Rio Grande by 1702. Over the years two more mission churches were built in the pueblo and both collapsed on themselves. The present church was built in 1918.
It is felt that Puyé was settled after the people migrated to the Pajarito Plateau from the Mesa Verde area in the 1200s. They left behind a trail of architectural ruins and potsherds that show a movement south originating near Ojo Caliente and proceeding down into the Chama River Valley, then downstream to the Rio Grande. Some of that flow of people flowed up onto the Pajarito Plateau. That's where Puyé, their most recent ancestral village, is located. Most of their Tewa ancestors had descended to the present village of Santa Clara by the early 1600s.
Santa Clara has a long history of pottery making and there are more than 200 active potters in the pueblo today. Until the 1920s, the majority of Santa Clara pottery was undecorated redware, blackware or made of a natural micaceous clay. In the late 1920s Sarafina Gutierrez Tafoya and her daughter, Margaret Tafoya, developed what is now known as deep-carved blackware. The two women were also instrumental in promoting the "bear claw" as a pueblo signature until today, it is the most recognized Santa Clara symbol. The Tafoyas also bucked the trend of producing smaller and smaller wares by creating some of the largest vessels ever made in the southwest.
Today, the pottery tradition at Santa Clara is to constantly modify the tradition. Potters have been experimenting with their art for years and essentially created the field of miniatures. They also developed the art of sgraffito by scratching and painting elaborate designs that include pueblo dancers, nature scenes, animals and ancient Mimbres designs.
While Santa Clara is best known for its pottery, other artisans create beautiful beadwork, woodcarving, sculpture, embroidery, baskets and woven goods.