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Native American Visions
Pueblo Indian Pottery

Much of what we know about the ancient cultures of the Southwest is through the study of their pottery. Archaeologists tell us that the discovery of pottery was probably an accident, the result of cooking in a clay-filled basket. When the basket burned away and left the hardened residue of a clay container, it served as a catalyst for a new way of life.

Ancient civilizations known for their achievements in ceramics include the Hohokam, the Mimbres/Mogollon, and the Ancestral Pueblo People (previously known as the Anasazi). Birds were popular decorative motifs on the pottery of the Hohokam, who lived in what is today Arizona from 300-1450 CE. The Mimbres people, who lived in what is now southern New Mexico, were known for their striking figurative designs in black and white. The Ancestral Pueblo people were known for their impressive cliff dwellings, the ruins of which are found in the four corners area (Colorado, Utah, Arizona, and New Mexico). They often used a black slip made with natural minerals to decorate white clay vessels. The Ancestral Pueblo People were also known for a particular surface decoration called “corrugated” ware (because it looks like corrugated cardboard).

Many of the Indian Pueblos in the Southwest today continue the pottery traditions that were begun by their ancient ancestors. The Pueblos located south of Santa Fe include Acoma, Santo Domingo, Cochiti, Laguna, San Felipe, Santa Ana, Zia, Jemez, Isleta, and Sandia. The Eight Northern Pueblos are San Juan, Santa Clara, Taos, Nambe, Tesuque, Pojoaque, San Ildefonso, and Picuris. Zuni is located in northwestern New Mexico and Hopi is in Arizona. Particularly rich pottery traditions are found in Acoma, Cochiti, San Ildefonso, Santa Clara, Zuni, and Hopi. The pottery from the different pueblos is distinguished primarily by its decoration and style. For instance, Cochiti Pueblo is known for charming storyteller dolls first created by Helen Cordero.

While the finished pieces may look very different, the techniques used to create the pottery do not vary greatly between the pueblos. First, the clay must be dug from the ground. This usually occurs at a sacred site that is close to the potter’s home. The clay is then ground and sifted for impurities. Temper, such as sand or ground pot sherds, is added to prevent breakage. Water is added to moisten the clay, after which the clay is allowed to “rest.” The final step in the preparation process is “wedging,” which removes any air pockets that might cause a piece to break during firing.

All pueblo pottery is constructed using the coiling technique. The base is begun in a small dish called a “puki.” Coils are then added to create the shape, and the surface is smoothed with a gourd. When the potter is satisfied with the size and form of the piece, it is left to dry.

After the pot has dried, the artist will smooth the surface with sandpaper if needed. The pot is then wiped and cleaned thoroughly. Next, a slip is added to the pot and it is burnished with a smooth stone while still moist. This compacts the clay molecules and creates a luster on the surface of the vessel. The surface is decorated using a variety of colored slips.

Pueblo pots are always fired outdoors on the ground, often using cow or horse dung as fuel. Successful firing is very dependent on favorable weather conditions. Sometimes the kiln is smothered to reduce the oxygen in the fire. This is known as a “reduction firing,” and produces the black pottery that was made famous by Maria Martinez of San Ildefonso. Potters in Santa Clara Pueblo also create award-winning black pottery using reduction firing.

Pottery making has served as a visible link between the contemporary Pueblo and their ancestors. Today, Pueblo artists continually produce innovative new designs and pieces, while remaining true to their rich ceramic traditions.

Lesson Plan: Making a Coil Pot


Discussion Questions:
Adapted from the poster series titled questionArte by Marilyn Stewart PhD, published by CRIZMAC (Item # 1000 $62.00)

Marilyn Stewart’s questions are so universal that they apply to works of art across cultures. The questions presented in last month’s newsletter apply perfectly to a discussion of Pueblo pottery as well:

Is the pottery of the Southwestern Pueblo people valuable or significant because of what it shows about the artist, the culture, the materials used, or other art?

• Do you have a new understanding about the artist? Yourself? Other people?

• Does the work of art show you something important or new about materials or processes?

• Have you learned something new about other art as a result of viewing and understanding this particular work of art?

From the Teacher’s Guide of questionArte
“Talking about particular works of art, as well as about art in general, can be the most satisfying activity associated with learning about art and art-makers. Students gain new insights as they examine and investigate works of art and offer possible interpretations about meaning. Students learn from each other in the process of discussing important questions about art. They learn about their own art-making as they consider what they have accomplished through their efforts.