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Indian Pottery

Archaeological digs in North America has carbon dated Indian pots from 30,000 B.C.
Most of what we know of the first American Indians is based on their clay work, fired clay is the only material on earth that does not change with time.



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Native American Potter
There is evidence of early human settlement on this continent dating from at least 25,000 B.C. long before recorded history began.
It is believed that Indians entered the United States from Asia across the Bering Strait and through Canada between 25,000 to 8,000 B.C. when the land bridge existed.
Others believe that Indians might have come north from Central or South America.
There certainly must have been travel back and forth between North and South America.
Archaeological digs in North America has carbon dated Indian pots from 30,000 B.C.
Most of what we know of the first American Indians is based on their clay work, fired clay is the only material on earth that does not change with time.

The United States was more or less divided into six physiographic areas:
The Great Plains of the Midwest
The Mississippi River lands
The arid Southwest
The West Coast seaside
The colder Northeast
The warmer Southeast
As you can see North America provided a wide range of territories for these early people, from cold to subtropical climates.
The Indians eventually migrated into these different regions and from the beginning made pottery.

About 2000 years ago, the beginning of agriculture in North America caused the nomadic Indian peoples to settle down.
When this happened pottery shapes developed according to various customs and techniques of gathering water, storing grains, liquids and preserving seeds for the next planting season.
The craft turned into the development of cooking pots and were made to sit on rocks in open fires.
Water jars were made with indented bases so that they could sit comfortably on the heads of water gatherers and large storage vessels with lids were made for grains and water to keep dirt and animals out of them.
Each individual Indian village all over the United States became known for their different pottery shapes and decorative styles.

Because the men were the hunters, the women became the chief pottery makers.
As the agricultural practice developed so did the need for storage vessels for seeds and grains.
Hierarchies developed for the size, shape and decoration of the pottery for storing the best seeds, different varieties of seeds and so forth.
Other hierarchical shapes developed historically for other practical and religious reasons.

Early on, hand built vessels were made solely for utilitarian purposes, with little consideration for artistry.
Most of the very early pottery was unadorned, except for the texture of the coils and pinches, or indented textures from pointed sticks.
Not much attention was paid to symmetry.

Indian pottery 2
When decorative designs began to appear on Indian pottery, people struggled to find meaning in the designs.
They tried to find out if they were actually important symbols or just simply decoration but the pottery worker would not divulge the intent of the design.
They were very secretive in regards to sacred traditions, ceremonial rituals and symbols.
Indian tribes have always embraced life, nature, birds and other animals, humans, mother earth and the Great White Father and whether realistic or abstract they formed the basic elements of Indian designs for all utilitarian and ritual pottery.

The use of pottery for ceremonial use during rituals and burials in a religious and social environment existed long before Columbus landed in America in 1492 and the Spanish conquest in 1540 and marked the end of the prehistoric period of Indian art and the beginning of the historic period.

Archaeologists have been able to determined from the pottery shards left behind by pottery workers, the probable origins of excavated pottery remains since all pottery workers dug their own clay and made the pottery near their homes.
The different villages often traded pottery among themselves, but when a lot of similar pottery is found in one place, it generally means that they were made there.

In the early years Indian pottery was made thinly and were quite fragile before and during firing.
Thousands of pots were made over time, and thousands were broken during firing or from everyday use.
To help protect the pottery from heat during the sudden heating of the bonfire, some pottery workers used pulverized fired pottery shards as temper in the raw clay, while other pottery workers used volcanic ash, which they called sand.
It was an inert mineral that in itself is resistant to the shock of instant flame.

Many primitive pieces of pottery show texture marks, indicating that they may have been made in baskets, leading historians to believe that fired clay pottery developed because the Indians lined their woven baskets with clay and when the baskets were put in the fire to dry corn and other foodstuff, the basket burned away leaving the hard durable clay pot intact.

Indian tribes from different regions have developed their own pottery traditions in a variety of ways.
Listed below is some of the best known in the west.

The Southwest: Pueblo and Navajo Cultures

Southwestern Indian culture has changed little over the centuries, unlike anywhere else in Indian America; it is vital and timeless.
The Southwest can boast the oldest continuous record of habitation on the continent outside of Mexico.
By the beginning of the Christian era, three primary southwestern cultures were forming: Hohokam (probably the antecedents of today's Pima and Papago Indians in Arizona), Mogollon (of which the Mimbres culture was the highest achievement), and Pueblo (which climaxed in the eleventh century in the Four Corners area of Colorado, Utah, Arizona, and New Mexico).
Most of these ancient cultures vanished by the twelfth century, but the Pueblo and Navajo cultures continue today.

One of the greatest expressions of ceramic art in the world is the Southwestern pottery made in the existing twenty pueblos in New Mexico and Arizona, and by the Navajos in Arizona.
The continuity of these Indian cultures is assured as long as their belief systems remain intact.

Classic Mimbres Black-on-white pottery is painted in geometric or figural decorative styles. The latter style often features whimsical or strange composite creatures.
Mimbres burial bowl, c. A.D. 1000-1150; the center of this bowl is broken to allow the deceased’s spirit to escape.

The Pueblo Indians

Through sheer strength of character and endurance, the Pueblo Indians survived the Spanish conquerors, the degradation of conquest, and the plagues that spread from the whitemans diseases.
Once the United States took over the land settled by the Spanish, all other Indians in this country were moved to remote lands unfit for habitation or agriculture - at a great cost of life and emotional stress for the Indians.
The struggle for existence continues to this day, particularly in the pueblos.
By and large, Pueblo people have not integrated and intermarried with whites, but have stayed in their assigned areas with the pueblo at the center of their lives as the core of ceremonial activity.
This cocooning has allowed these communities to preserve their traditions and customs like no other Indian group.

Clay vessels have been made for storage and household use in these stationary societies for at least 2000 years.
Each pueblo has developed a style of form and decoration indigenous to its needs and beliefs.
These varying styles have been historically documented and attributed to particular pueblos since the Spanish conquest.

Pueblo Indians prospected clays from their own secret ancestral clay sources.
Most pots were smoothed to create burnished backgrounds for designs, which were painted with pigments made from dyes of boiled plants or finely ground metallic rocks.
Brushes were cut and shaped from the chewed ends of twigs or yucca fronds.
Glaze was almost never used for a coating, nor was the potter's wheel ever used for making pottery.
The pots were hardened in an open outdoor bonfire reaching 1,300 degrees Fahrenheit.
Notice in the picture below dried cow or buffalo pies (known as cow or buffalo poop, incase anyone reading this hasn't been raised on a farm) have been gathered and placed in old fashion tin bathtubs and was used as fuel for firing the pottery.
Small twig were gathered and used to get the fire started.
These antique methods are still used today in some areas.

The railroad greatly affected Pueblo pottery culture, bringing curious and inquisitive tourists within reach of the artists.
Because of this, a great deal of Pueblo pottery was being made for sale as souvenirs.
Traders were the middlemen and set up trading posts that became famous.
Fairs and markets, especially at Gallup and Santa Fe, promoted Indian pottery.
Shops selling only pottery sprung up all over the Southwest.
Indian pottery 4

Indian woman preparing to fire pottery

Beginning in the 1920s, the best women potters were encouraged to sign their work, and soon they were the subject of much public acclaim from the outside world.
At the same time, serious collectors of Indian art began to emerge, buying the best work.

All of these selling possibilities brought some spectacular Indian women artists to national attention, as did the endorsement of art and history museums.
Dr. Edgar Lee Hewett of the Museum of New Mexico and his colleagues at the Heye Foundation in New York and the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., sought out the best Pueblo women potters, purchased and exhibited their work, and hired the artists to demonstrate.
A number of extraordinary women artists flourished in this atmosphere of encouragement.

From these roots, dynasties began.
Newly famous Pueblo pottery matriarchs, such as Nampeyo of Hano and Maria Martinez, realized the monetary potential of pottery as they also recognized the demise of their old ways due to drought and encroaching modernization.
These women and others like them showed their people that pottery could be a source of income to help sustain their way of life.
Pueblo culture and pottery culture helped each other survive.

Maria Martinez, 1887 - 1980, from San Ildefonso Pueblo, is one of the most famous Native American potters.

Maria Martinez

The Navajo Nation

The Navajo Reservation, consisting of fourteen million acres of high plateau stretching from northeastern Arizona and northwestern New Mexico into southeastern Utah, is guarded by four sacred mountains: Blanca Peak, Mount Taylor, the San Francisco Peaks, and Mount Hesperus.
The Navajo nation is the largest Indian group in the United States, with a population of two hundred thousand.

Traditional Navajos live in round log-and-clay hogans and have "summer houses" made of branches and twigs, neither of which have water or electricity.
Many are in the vicinity of Chinle and Canyon de Chelly, where many Navajo weavers raise their sheep.
Clans are very important in Navajo life, and are the source of some of the emotions, remembrances, and cultural ties that influence pottery designs.
Tuba City, the tribal headquarters on the east side of the Grand Canyon, and springs in vicinities to the south, have sufficient clay in nearby locations for potters to gather.

Unlike the Hopi, the Navajo were not traditionally artistic potters, although Navajo women have been making pottery for hundreds of years for their own household and ceremonial use.
A few of them turned into artist potters when the railroad crossed America, and have begun to be a force in the Indian pottery market much like Hopi artists, who have long been successful.
In this century, Navajos have achieved notoriety in weaving, silversmithing and jewelry making, basketry, and painting; probably more than in any other Indian culture, Navajo potters are enveloped in surrounding aesthetic inspirations.

Navajo potters often mix several clays together, for varying physical and chemical as well as aesthetic qualities.
Unlike many other tribes, Navajos do not grind up old pot shards to mix into the raw clay powder for temper, lessening the shrinkage and breakage during firing.
Navajos feel that old pottery shards belong to the Anasazi, their forefathers, and should not be removed from the ground.

The style of early Navajo pottery is in contrast to most pots made in other Indian villages in the United States.
Fabricated in the coil and pinch manner of old societies, the work was bonfired and then a unique treatment was used.
Before the pot had cooled, hot melted pitch from piñon trees was poured or rubbed in a thin coating over the vessel, inside and out.
This unusual technique distinguished the look and aroma of Navajo pottery.

Traditional pots were undecorated for centuries, except for textures that occurred in the fabrication, or the application of small symbols made of the same clay.
Navajo tribal society was tightly controlled, and medicine men imposed restrictive behavior regulations upon the women making pottery.
Possibly, the discipline imposed on Navajo women shows in the conservative nature of their pots.

In the 1880s, the railroad crossed America and the first whiteman run trading posts came to the Navajo reservation.
Use of cash money instead of the barter system brought the Indians access to the white man's cooking products made of metal and plastic, diminishing the need for utilitarian pottery and undermining native tradition.
Navajo women still made pottery for ceremonial use and the lack of large quantities of this type of pottery along with the whiteman's cooking utensiles, reduced the need for making any other kind of pottery.
At the same time, while artistic pottery from the southwestern pueblos was reaching a high degree of popularity, the traders rejected the traditional Navajo pottery, calling the dark-brown, pitch-coated utilitarian wares "mud pots."
Tourist markets for Navajo blankets and jewelry were more profitable than the market for this kind of pottery.

Another change occurred when curators from nearby museums began to notice a few emerging clay artists, who were taking traditional Navajo techniques to new levels.
Rose Williams was the first traditional Navajo potter to break into the museum markets and fairs in the 1950s.
She built cylindrical jars two to three feet tall, a quite exceptional size for handbuilt bonfired pottery.
Her daughter, Alice Cling, was one of the first Navajos to sign a pot.

Today Navajo pots are usually fired outdoors, one pot at a time in an open pit, with juniper wood both under and over the pot.
The fires are allowed to burn hard for several hours.
The pitch for coating the pots is gathered by children or families from piñon trees in a very labor intensive process.
Of course, everything about this process is hard: digging the clay, grinding it to powder, coiling and pinching the clay into shape, gathering wood for the fire, tending the fire, and applying the hot liquid sap to the finished pot.

The Navajo tradition of making illustrative symbolic sand paintings for healing ceremonies has given inspiration to some pottery decorations, although it is against traditional rules to use them.
It is difficult for Indians to use sacred symbols for design; feelings of reverence and ancestral respect impose strong limitations.
Still, tribal background is inevitably an important decorative resource.
The Yei bichai, representing the mythical Holy People, are particularly prominent subjects in Navajo art.
These appear often on pots by the Navajo women, but they always leave a portion of the design unfinished so the Yei spirit can escape.

Lorraine Williams is one of the leading traditional Navajo potters working today

Navajo design on Yei water jar.

Today, most Navajo potters live in the Shonto-Cow Springs area of Arizona, where there is still a good clay source.
Many of the potters in this and other areas are related directly by marriage or by clan.
Traditional ways are handed down or handed sideways, which is still the best methods of passing on customs.
Some of the women potters have actually conducted classes for other Navajo women.
The revival of interest, spurred by the success of Alice Cling, Lorraine Williams, and a few others, has gradually increased pottery production both for the market and for ceremonials.
Among the best-known Navajo potters working today are Christine McHorse and Lucy McKelvey; they have joined other young clay artists from many Indian backgrounds, living and working in cities without the traditional tribal restrictions, but forging new concepts based on their cultures.

West Coast Cultures

Pottery was produced for functional and ceremonial purposes by all Indian groups on the West Coast; some of them developed unusually individual claywork styles.
However, accomplished artists in other traditional crafts (notably basketry and wood carving) were the ones to become famous in this region, and were sought after by collectors.
These works varied from group to group.

Like the Indians of the Southwest, the sparse populations of West Coast Indians in California were influenced by Spanish conquistadors and missionaries.
Unlike the Southwest Indian tribes, however, the Maidu, Yurok, Karok, Miwok, Pomo, and Mono cultures of California were great basket makers rather than potters. Still, some West Coast tribes did delve into clay - for instance, the Maricopa and Mojave Indians, who did develop an interesting clay work style.

Some of the world's finest sculpture originated on the Northwest coast, but it was not in clay.
The magnificent wooden totems and masks of the Tlingit, Haida, Inuit, and Kwakiutl are legendary and are generally carved by superbly talented men in these northwestern tribes.

The end!

The Indian's perception is humane.
It is centered upon an ideal understanding of man in the whole context of his humanity.
It is therefore an ethical perception, a moral regard for the beings, animal and inanimate, among which man must live his life with the sense of place, of the sacred, of the beautiful, of humanity, the Indian has had and continues to have a singular and vital role in the story of man on this planet.

There are only two lasting things we give our children--one is roots, the other is wings.



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