Native American Pottery

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Fired clay is the only material on earth that does not change with time.

In the past, the skill of pottery making was associated with Neolithic culture, with the development of agriculture and settled communities (6000 – 4000 BCE).  However, pottery was being made by Asian hunter-gatherers 13,000 years ago. 

By 4000 – 3000 BCE, Chinese and Middle Eastern potters were using potter’s wheels and closed kilns.  By the 7th century BCE Chinese potters of the T’ang dynasty were producing unrivaled glazed earthenware as well as porcelain.  Greek potters were exporting their characteristic black figure pottery and in Meso-America the Olmecs were creating unglazed tripod pottery.

Although ceramics making began in Central America around 9000 BCE, the skill did not arrive in North America until 4000 BCE when Indians of the Southeast first took it up,  about the same time the dog was domesticated and agriculture and a more sedentary life style became common in this area. 

Using local clays, they made an unglazed slab and coil pottery fired in open pits and burnished with smooth stones chosen for this purpose.  Michael Simpson, author of Making Native American Pottery, comments that when examined, some of the polishing stones of one Catawba potter handed down to her by her grandmothers were found to be mastodon teeth!

By 900 CE most of the indigenous peoples of North American were making pottery.  The Mississippian Mound Builders were creating outstanding coiled pottery fired in open pits.  Their human and animal effigy pots are considered some of the finest North American Indian pottery of that period.

Ironically, the craft came late to the native peoples best known for their pottery today.  Contemporary with the Mound Builders, the Anasazi of the Chaco region were making simpler black on white ceramics decorated with geometric patterns, and elaborated gray cooking pots.

Their neighbors, the Mogollan, were making red on brown ware and three circles red on white bowls.  At the same time Mimbres potters were beginning to make their well-known ceramics.  Mimbres polychrome pottery, a gray or red clay covered by a heavy white slip with a yellow slip added to create a third color, appeared around 900 CE.

Today, when most people think of Native American pottery, they are thinking of the pottery created by descendants of the Anasazi.  After their migration from the Chaco area in north-western New Mexico, they settled in a broad region stretching from the Hopi mesas on the west to the Rio Grande pueblos and Taos Pueblo on the northeast. 

However, many North American tribes such as the Catawba have successfully revived their traditional pottery and are producing unique and beautiful ceramics.

Several Inuit communities, such as the Netsilik, Sadlermiut, Utkuhiksalik, and Qaernerimiut created utilitarian pottery in historic times, primarily to store food.

In Rankin Inlet, Nunavut, Canada, when the mine that employed much of the community closed down, the national government created the Rankin Inlet Ceramics Project, whose wares were successfully exhibited in Toronto in 1967. The project floundered but a local gallery revived interest in Inuit ceramics in the 1990s.

Southwestern pottery made in the existing twenty pueblos in New Mexico and Arizona, and by the Navajos in Arizona, remains one of the greatest expressions of ceramic art in the world.

Maria Martinez, Margaret Tafoya, Old Lady Nampeyo, Fannie Nampeyo, Teresita Naranjo, Lucy Lewis, Helen Condero, Helen Shupla, Nancy Youngblood, Nathan Youngblood, Tammy Garcia, Russell Sanchez, Frog Wonam, and Feather Women are just a few of the famous potters of the Southeast.