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Native American Art

Native American Pottery Crafts

Native American Pottery
The Old
- Three ancient tribes lay the foundation for the Indian pottery created today.

As far back as B.C. 300, the Hohokam (HO-ho-kawm) people who populated what is now southern Arizona were learning pottery skills from Mexican potters to the south. Many pieces of the red-on-gray or red-on-beige pottery with geometric designs has been found on Hohokam archeological sites.

The descendents of the Hohokam - the Pima (PEE-ma) and Tohono O'Odham (TO-na O TA-hm) - aren't known for the fine pottery of their ancestors, however. Both Pima and Tohono O'Odham people are known as master basket makers.

The ancient Mogollon (MUGGY-own) lived in the higher areas along the Arizona/New Mexico border, and the pottery of these people included brown and red ware with geometric designs to red-on-white and black-on-white pieces bearing images of fish, deer, birds, insects and rabbits. Eventually the Mogollon drifted north toward the lands of the Ancient Puebloan Culture (formerly referred to as the Anasazi) and were assimilated into other groups.

The Ancient Pueblo Culture people of northern New Mexico, southwestern Colorado and southeastern Utah began as basket makers and evolved into potters around the 5th century AD. The rough and thoroughly original early examples of these pots unearthed in recent times suggest these potters were self-taught and not influenced by the techniques of either the Hohokam or Mogollon. Over the years the potters produced pieces of black-on-white, white ware and polychrome.

While pottery from Old World Europe was created with the use of a wheel, kiln and glazes, Indian pottery of old was baked in fires in the earth and covered with rich clay slips rather than glazes.

The New - The Four Corners region of the United States and the pueblos of New Mexico offer the most abundant sources of American Indian pottery today. Much of it still reflect the ancient pieces of the Hohokam, Mogollon and Ancient Pueblo Culture, in tribute to the mothers, aunts and grandmothers who were not only artists, but teachers. The pottery of Jemez Pueblo potters today uses the ancient techniques of the Pecos Pueblo and old Mimbreno designs are found in many pieces of contemporary Acoma Pueblo pottery. It is fairly obvious that the potters of today realize what they create will be part of the history of Indian pottery tomorrow.

Much of today's pottery is made the same way it has been for generations: the clay is dug from the earth; dried on sheets of tin; soaked in a tub for two to four days; broken down in the water to a soupy mixture; and strained on a large screen, keeping only what passes through the screen. Water is then added to the sifted clay until it reaches the consistency of a milk shake. The "tempering sand" or "tuff" is a very important part of the pottery too, with some potters traveling 100 miles or more to find just what they are looking for. The tuff is passed through a sieve until it reaches a state of fine powder. The clay and the tuff are then mixed until the desired texture for a piece is reached. In anticipation of the high tourist season, many potters will prepare clay for many pieces at a time.

Pots are then formed on a lap board or table, many using natural old shaping tools and spoons made from gourds or shell. Most pieces are then pit fired in the earth in manure-smothered fires. The end result of the firing is always a surprise.

Styles of Indian Pottery
:

Taos and Picuris Pueblos

The Taos (TAH-ohs) and Picuris (Pee-CUR-is) pueblos of Northern New Mexico are famous for their micaceous, unpainted pottery. Though very simple in design, the mica in the clay makes the pieces appear to shimmer. Taos produces plain pots that appear golden in color with no design or a single design. Picuris pots are generally brown or reddish orange in color. Shapes vary.

Tewa Pueblos

  • San Juan - The potters of the San Juan Pueblo combine old and new pottery styles. Many feature a middle band placed on a polished red rim copied from sherds of ancient pots. A slip of micacecous clay makes it shimmer. Some pots are the reverse, with the middle band being plain and unpolished sandwiched between reds with polychrome designs. Shapes vary.
  • Santa Clara - It is said that long ago, during a tremendous drought, the people were dying of thirst when a bear appeared and led them to water. To honor that bear the Santa Clara potters place his paw print on their pots along with other symbols and designs such as: the water serpent to reflect water sources such as streams and rain; the kiva steps to represent the ceremonial pit; feathers as respect for the birds; rain and rainbows for the strong winds that bring storms. Santa Clara potters create in earth tones of yellow, beige, red, white, gray and matte black on high polished blackware. Blackware was created by the Santa Clara and San Ildefonso potters more than 300 years ago. The earth firing gives it the high-polished jet black finish. Shapes vary, but many double-spouted "wedding vases" come from Santa Clara. Pottery is pivotal to the economic and social structure of the pueblo.
  • San Ildefonso - Maria Martinez of San Ildefonso Pueblo is perhaps the most famous of all Indian potters. She was a teacher as well, offering to share her gifts with many who wished to study. Her matte black designs painted on high-gloss black pottery are legendary. The water serpent, an image to honor rain and thanksgiving for water given to dry lands, is a San Ildefonso trademark. Sgraffito, two-tone red, polychrome, carved pottery, matte black, and red and blackware are all created by San Ildefonso potters. Shapes vary.
  • Nambe and Pojoaque - Although pottery for art and function died out among the Nambe (Nam-BAY) at the turn of the 20th century, around 1980 a few new potters moved from Nambe to Pojoaque (Po-WAH-key) and began generating collectable figures like the storytellers of Cochiti Pueblo, wedding vases and small jars.
  • Tesuque - The people of Tesuque Pueblo today create largely for the tourist trade, creating storytellers in bright colors, "rain gods" and polychrome vessels.

Middle Rio Grande Pueblos

  • Cochiti - The Cochiti Pueblo is home to more than 200 potters, and of the 200 at least one quarter produce pottery figures, most prominently the storyteller. Helen Cordero made the very first storyteller in 1964 in memory of her grandfather who would gather the children around him and tell stories. Other figures include images such as a turtle taking children for a ride upon its back.
  • Santo Domingo - Birds, flowers and simple, bold geometrics are favored by the potters of Santo Domingo. Here religious rules prohibit the depiction of human figures or any sacred designs on pottery that is intended for sale. While the Zia potters produce birds in motion, the Santo Domingo artists portray birds in repose. Shapes vary.
  • Zia - The potters of Zia Pueblo are unique in that they are the only ones who temper their clay with the volcanic basalt rock to make a very hard pot that is then stone polished and painted with black. Typical of Zia designs are feathers, prayer sticks, spiderwebs, clouds, lightning and birds. It is a bird similar in appearance to a roadrunner, that is the Zia pottery hallmark. The state symbol of New Mexico is a stylized image of the sun that was taken from an old Zia ceremonial pot. The symbol is often simply referred to as a "Zia."
  • Jemez - Jemez produces a lot of pottery for the tourist trade, and its soft colors appeal to many. Often the designs depict the link between the ancient Pecos people and the Jemez. Designs are painted on red clay pots with lead-based paint that melts to a shiny glaze after firing. Jars, bowls and figures, including nativity scenes, are most common.

Acoma/Laguna/Isleta Pueblos

  • Acoma - The Acoma, too, create largely for the tourist trade. Acoma clay is dark, nearly as dense as shale, and must be pulverized into a fine powder before being mixed with temper. The pots are known for their thin, hard-fired walls, stone polish and elaborate paint. Parrots appear frequently on Acoma pottery, symbols of the sun, south or great ancestors.
  • Other Mimbres-style (Mimbres being people who lived in southwestern New Mexico AD 950-1150) designs such as lizards, insects and animals have become synonymous with Acoma pottery.
  • Laguna and Isleta - Before 1830 the pottery of the Laguna resembled that of the Acoma, but today's style of white-slipped polychrome adorned with bold paint in simple design was created after that time. Gladys Paquin and Stella Teller are two famous Laguna potters.

Pottery Purchasing Guide:

The deep and true value of a pot fashioned by an American Indian potter is the time, effort, energy and relationship to offered to that pot by its creator. When choosing pottery for purchase, here are a few things to look for:

  • The inside and outside of the pot should be smooth, even and balanced with no pits, lumps or bubbles.
  • Designs should be symmetrical and well spaced, with all large areas filled in and covered completely.
  • Carvings into the pottery should be the same depth throughout.
  • Black smudges should not appear on redware and beige spots should not appear on blackware.
  • A signature does not necessarily indicate high quality as some of the best potters choose not to sign their work.

Prices can range from $10 to thousands. Often a tiny piece can be high in price because of the difficulty in working very small is greater than a "regular" size piece. Like any investment, it's best to look at a lot before selecting.

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