Pueblo Indian Pottery

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Polished PotIn the world of Native American art today, there are four extremely well-known traditions: the wood-carving traditions of the Northwest Coast tribes, Navajo blankets, Tohono O’odham baskets, and Pueblo pottery. Of these, Pueblo pottery is probably the best known.

With regard to art, in traditional Native American societies art was not divorced from function. In fact, in none of the 500 American Indian languages is there a word which can be translated as “art” as it is understood in English. Art was simply a part of everyday life, not something to be separated from it, or to be hung in special buildings. Goods were decorated to enhance their aesthetic qualities and/or their spiritual power.  

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For many centuries, Pueblo people have made and used a wide variety of pottery containers, including bowls, jars, cups, ladles, and canteens. Pueblo potters also produced figurines, effigy vessels to be used for religious purposes, pipes, and prayer meal bowls.  The pottery was, and still is, often highly decorated and was traditionally traded throughout the region.


Traditionally, women are responsible for forming and firing the pottery vessels. Mothers and grandmothers usually teach their descendants the techniques of the craft. While women traditionally did most of the decorating, it is not uncommon for men to paint vessels made by women.

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Pueblo pottery-making is not complicated with regard to materials or construction. It involves three basic materials: earth, water, and fire. In making pottery, the potter must cooperate completely with the materials. Attempts to push beyond the limits of the materials will result in failure.

Pueblo pottery is traditionally formed with a coil technique in which coils of clay are circled around the base of the pot to form the walls of the vessel. To form the pot, the vessel walls are constructed of bands or ropes of clay laid one on top of another. These clay ropes are then pinched together to build the pot in the desired size and form. The walls of the pot are then smoothed and shaped with pieces of gourd called kajepes. Once the basic form is completed, the pot is left to dry. In a semi-dry state, the pot is then scraped with a gourd scraper which removes any irregularities and further refines its shape. A red slip is then applied with a piece of soft buckskin. The pot is burnished with a stone before the slip has dried. This step gives the pot a glossy finish.

In order to promote even drying and to minimize warping, temper is added to the clay. Temper may include sand, pulverized rocks, and ground potsherds. Temper varies according to region-and the type of clay and other materials available in the region-as well as to the personal preferences of the potter. In some areas, such as the Hopi mesas, sand naturally occurs in the mined clay and therefore the potters rarely need to add additional temper. At Taos and Picuris, the clay is naturally tempered with inclusive mica and the result is a very durable ware suited for cooking. At Zuni, the potters generally use ground potsherds: this means that pottery which might be hundreds of years old is incorporated into the new pottery. At Santo Domingo and Cochiti, volcanic tuff, usually called “sand,” is used for temper, while at Zia and Santa Ana, potters use a water-worn sand.

Pottery is generally made during the warm months as the clay does not dry as well during the cold months and firing is not as successful. In order to survive the initial heating in the fire, a piece has to be absolutely dry. If there is any moisture, the potter will hear the disappointing sounds of steam mounting and popping out a portion of the vessel to make its escape.

The fuels used for the firing vary from pueblo to pueblo and potter to potter. Among the Hopi, for example, coal was often used for firing the pots. In the other areas where coal was not available, the potters would use a combination of wood and animal manure. At San Ildefonso, for example, the fire is smothered at its peak with powdered horse manure which gives the pottery an even, lustrous black surface.  

The process of firing the pottery is a relatively short process. It usually takes only a few hours. During this time, the fire must be carefully monitored. The ware is stacked on grating, made from old pottery sherds and specially made pottery baffles, to allow for even air circulation and heating. The methods of firing vary among the pueblos.

The firing is done outdoors and thus is dependent on weather. If the ground is wet, or if it is snowing or raining, or if it is windy, then the pottery cannot be fired. While there are some Pueblo potters today who may use an electric kiln to provide greater control, the pots fired this way are considered to be dead.

For several centuries-from about 1300 to about 1700-Pueblo potters used a lead-oxide glaze in decorating their pots. This glaze gave the dark designs a lustrous finish. The impurities in the lead glaze render the pottery surface dark brown or black or occasionally slightly green.

Each of the Pueblos has its own distinctive decorative styles. In addition, within a Pueblo the work of a particular potter, or the potter’s family, can sometimes be recognized. Zia pottery, for example, often uses bird motifs and the undulating ‘rainbow’ band. Zia designs are sometimes similar to those used in Acoma and Laguna.

Cochití pottery has traditionally been black-on-cream. Cochiti designs often include free-floating elements and ceremonial motifs such as clouds and lightning. The designs at Tesuque are similar to those used at Cochiti.

Among the Hopi, the surface of the pots is floated. This is a process in which the surface is moistened and then rubbed with a worn stone. This gives the finished surface a dense and satiny sheen.

Zuni designs often include a semi-realistic deer motif with a line leading from the heart to the mouth. This is most often called the ‘heart-line’ deer.

The designs used by Santo Domingo potters tend to be geometric, but include some bird and floral elements. At San Ildefonso, the potters use a combination of geometric and curvilinear design elements, as well as bird and floral motifs.

The most famous San Ildefonso designs are the black-on-black designs pioneered by María and Julian Martinez. This technique involves an initial overall polishing of the vessel with red slip. Then   designs are painted over the polished surface using a thinned mixture of slip. Before the firing the jar is a matte red-brown on polished red, and after the firing the more recognizable matte and polished black.

At times some pottery designs are borrowed by potters from different Pueblos. For example, in the late 1870s, Acoma potters used a parrot design. This design was then copied by the potters at Zia who refer to these birds as “Acoma parrots.”

Pueblo pottery since the late 1800s has become well known as collectable art work. This has created some conflicts with traditional Pueblo culture. The collectors who buy Pueblo pottery, almost all of whom are non-Hopi, want to know who made the piece and therefore a signature on the pot is important to them. However, traditional Pueblo culture views the individual as a vital part of the whole. Thus personal recognition has largely been shunned. This attitude changed slowly in the twentieth century and recognition of the work of individual potters has now become commonplace.

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