Native American Art Navajo Pottery History

Navajo RugsThere is evidence of early human settlement on this continent dating back at least 25,000 B.C., long before recorded history. Most scholars believe Indians entered the continental United States from Asia, traveling across the Bering Strait and through Canada, between 25,000 and 8,000 B.C., when the land bridge existed. Much of our knowledge of the first American Indians is based on their clay work, since fired clay is the only material on earth that does not change with time.

About two thousand years ago, the beginning of agriculture in North America caused the previously nomadic Indian peoples to settle down. Soon, pottery shapes developed according to various customs and techniques of gathering water, storing grains and liquids, and preserving seeds for the next planting. The craft culminated in the development of cooking pots that were made to sit on rocks in open fires, water jars with indented bases so they could sit comfortably on the heads of water gatherers, and large storage vessels for grains and water. Indian villages all over the United States became known for their different pot shapes and decorative styles.

Sometime during the early period of formalized agricultural practice, storage vessels for seeds and grains were needed. Hierarchies developed for the size, shape, and decoration of the pots for storing the best seeds, for different varieties of seeds, and so forth. Other hierarchical shapes developed historically for other practical reasons. Women were probably the gatherers (as men were the hunters), and women became the chief pottery makers.

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

Later, decorative designs began to appear on Indian pots. Anglos have long struggled to find meaning in these designs, but Indians are reluctant to verbalize their meanings. If the symbols are important rather than mere embellishment, outsiders are not likely to be privy to the potter’s intent. Indians do not divulge sacred traditions, ceremonial rituals, or symbols. From the earliest times, Indian tribes have venerated life, nature, birds and other animals, humans, and gods. Realistic and abstracted interpretations of these mentors probably form the basic elements of Indian designs for all utilitarian and ritual objects.

No one knows why pottery became so important to all North and South American Indians for ceremonial use during rituals and burials. The use of pottery can be recognized in a religious and social context long before Columbus’ arrival in America in 1492 and the Spanish conquest in 1540. These years, however, mark the end of the prehistoric period of Indian art, and the beginning of what is called the historic period.
From 1000 to 1300 AD, the Toltecs and Chichimecs pushed the Mixtecs southward. They eventually got to the Oaxaca valley, where they clashed with the Zapotecs who abandoned Monte Alban and moved to centers farther south, such as Yagul and Lambityeco. A semi-alliance was brought about between the two groups when the Zapotec king married a Mixtec princess in 1280, but Monte Alban was in a decadent period. Not even the combined Mixtec and Zapotec forces could hold back the Aztecs who invaded under Axayacatl in the middle of the fifteenth century. They did succeed in turning back the Aztecs under Ahuitzotl at Guiengola, and the last Zaachila king, Cocijo-eza, married Ahuitzotl’s daughter, thereby bringing about a lasting alliance and peace. The son of this marriage, Cocijo-pij, was the last Zapotec ruler. He died in 1563, long after the Spaniards had taken over the Oaxaca region.

As of 1995 there were 7.8 million speakers of native languages in Mexico, 8% of the total population. The state of Oaxaca is the most native state of the Mexican republic, in terms of both the total number of indigenous inhabitants as well as the number of aboriginal cultures represented within its borders. There are 289 living aboriginal languages in Mexico; Aztecan, Mayan and Zapotecan are the most widely spoken.

The most widely spoken native language in today’s Oaxaca is Zapotec, with approximately 423,000 speakers. The Zapotec language belongs to the greater Otomanguean language group. Of the 173 living Otomanguean tongues, 64 are Zapotecan. These are subsequently divided into three geographic subgroups within the state of Oaxaca: Northern, Southern and Isthmus Zapotec, with a slight overlap into the neighboring states of Chiapas and Veracruz.

Zapotec is a tonal language rich in sound and pronunciation. Because the set of sounds used to speak Zapotec is greater than for European languages, it is difficult to capture it accurately with the standard roman alphabet. This was a problem for Spanish friars in the 16th century, when they began writing zapotec catechisms and composing grammars and vocabularies of the language.

Current theories suggest that 10,000 years before the present, Paleo-Indian inhabitants of the region shared a single language. As population groups began to settle and differentiate along regional lines, likewise their speech began to diverge. Sometime between 10 and 7 thousand past, three great language families had differentiated: the northern Uto-Aztecan group, the southern Mayan group, and the central proto-Otomanguean group. The central proto-Otomanguean group extended from the present Mexican state of Hidalgo to the southern extent of today’s Oaxaca.

In succeeding millennia, various branches continued to diverge within each language group, and within Otomanguean the most important branches were the Otomí-Pame, Chocho-Popoloca-Mazateco, Mixe-Zoque and Mixtec-Zapotec. A key linguistic fission seems to have occurred around 5,700 ago, when Mixtec and Zapotec began to diverge. These glotochronological estimates are corroborated by the available archaeological data for each of these peoples. For example, glotochronological analyses indicate, and archaeology corroborates, a great atomization of Zapotec culture following the initiation of the long period of decay of the great capital at Monte Albán. Simultaneously with this event, which began in the eighth century of the common era, a number of dialectical variants of Zapotec appeared in the mountain regions surrounding the central valley of Oaxaca.

While it is clear that today’s Zapotecan languages share commonalities with one another and with an ancestral language; as Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, French, Roman and Romanian with Latin, the Zapotec languages are largely unintelligible to native speakers of the other tongues. However, in Zapotec languages, as in Romance languages, one of the most highly preserved areas of commonality is the numbering system. Although an Isthmus and a Mountain Zapotec could hardly converse with one another in their own dialects, since their languages diverged from Valley Zapotec 8 centuries ago and have not interacted significantly since, they would each recognize one another’s numbers.

Pot shard traces left behind by potters over the centuries have enabled archaeologists to determine the probable origins of excavated pot remains, since all potters prospected clay and made pots near their dwelling places. Of course, pots may have been traded among Indian villages, but when many similar pots are found in one place, they were no doubt created there.

From the beginning, Indian pots have been thinly fabricated and fragile before and during firing. Many thousands of pots were made over the centuries; thousands broke in the firing and many broke from use. To help protect the vessels from thermal shock during the sudden heating of the bonfire, some potters used ground-up, fired shards as temper in the raw clay. Other potters used volcanic ash, which they called sand, an inert mineral that is resistant to the shock of instant flame.

Historians generally believe that fired clay pottery developed because ancient people lined their woven baskets with mud-clay. When the baskets were subjected to fire so that corn or other foodstuffs could be dried, the basket burned, leaving hard, durable clay intact. It is true that many primitive pots bear texture marks indicating that they might have been made in baskets.

Still, there can only be guesswork about the origins of baskets. Did woven containers really come before clay pots? Excavations in some parts of the United States have yielded unfired clay pots that could not have been pressed in baskets. Vessels may have been fashioned for storage or for uses other than cooking food, unrelated to the basket-pot theory. The fact that fire could harden clay may have been discovered accidentally, not necessarily in mudded-up cooking baskets.

Astonishingly, the potter’s wheel was never used anywhere in either
North or South America. The wheel was used for transportation and for tools, but was never adapted for clay. It may be that Indians just relished the experience of building a clay pot slowly by hand, using the painstaking method of coiling and pinching.

Over the centuries, tribal groups from different regions have developed their pottery traditions in a variety of ways.

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.

Today, 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. The continuity of these Indian cultures is assured as long as their belief systems remain intact.

Clay vessels have been made for storage and household use in these stationary societies for at least two thousand 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.

Traditionally, 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 residues 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 vitreous coating, nor was the potter’s wheel ever used for fabrication. The pots were hardened in an open outdoor bonfire reaching 1,300 degrees Fahrenheit. These antique methods are preserved today.

The railroad greatly affected Pueblo pottery culture, bringing curious and inquisitive tourists within reach of the artists. Soon, a great deal of Pueblo pottery was being made for sale as souvenirs. Traders were the middlemen; some settled near the reservations 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. Among the most important merchants was the Fred Harvey Company, which sold Indian pottery in its chain of lodges, shops, and restaurants at railroad stations, national parks, and other key tourist locations throughout the West.

Within the boundaries of the somewhat nomadic Navajo nation lays the more settled Hopi Pueblo, a contradiction that has caused problems for many years. The relationship between the Hopi and the Navajo is tense. Although most Indian groups (even outside the United States) have similar myths of origin, rituals, good and bad gods, and rules of behavior, different groups of Indians are not at all alike. Differences between the Hopi and the Navajo tribes have caused some political and social confrontations.

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 renown in weaving of Navajo rugs, 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 potshards 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 – but 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 otherwise 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 Anglo-run trading posts came to the Navajo reservation. Use of cash money instead of the barter system brought the Indians access to Anglo 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, but the lack of production reduced the stimulus for making any kind of pottery. At the same time – while artistic pottery from the southwestern pueblos was reaching a high degree of popularity – traders rejected the traditional Navajo pottery, calling the dark-brown, pitch-coated, utilitarian wares “mud pots.” Tourist markets for Navajo rugs, blankets and jewelry were more profitable than the market for this kind of pottery.

For the most part, the Navajo Nation is comprised of high desert where temperatures can shift from very hot to very cold over the course of a few hours. There are canyons and plateaus, mesas and washes. The action of wind and water over the land has created rich and varied deposits of clay all over the reservation. This natural material has been well used for making pottery. The effects of weather on the land over eons have produced rich deposits of clays that are collected and used by the people for making their pottery. Potters learn to recognize good clay from looking at it, touching it, smelling it, and even from tasting it.

A change occurred when curators from nearby museums began to notice a few emerging clay artists, who were taking traditional Navajo techniques to new levels. In the 1960s, as new markets for traditional crafts expanded, Navajo potters began to produce pots for the tourists and collectors of Indian art. Though potters were traditionally women, many men now make pottery as well.

Navajo pottery does not have the refinement of the pottery of some other tribes of the Southwest, but it plays an important role in Navajo culture, and the processes used to make it are common to the hand building techniques used by potters all over the world.

Clay is a natural material. It is found all over the world on river and lake banks and, in fact, anywhere that the ancient action of wind, water, ice and the movement of earth’s surface have crushed rock and mixed it with silica and alumina along with a variety of minerals and organic materials. Long ago people found that soft damp clay could be shaped by hand into a variety of useful forms that became permanent when placed in a fire for a period of time. This process of turning clay into a permanent ceramic object is called firing. Clays found in different locations may have very different characteristics. They may be different colors, have more or less sand or other gritty material in them, which makes them smoother or rougher textured and can affect the temperature at which they fire. Some clay is sticky and some barely holds together as it is shaped.

Today ceramic supply companies make clay from raw chemical materials. These clays are mixed to provide predictable temperatures for firing and predictable colors and textures. Contemporary potters buy their clay from companies that specialize in mixing clays of different kinds for specific purposes.

Clay often has trapped air bubbles. The air in these bubbles will expand when the clay is exposed to heat, and cause the pot to explode. Additionally, there may be wetter or dryer spots in the clay. These must be mixed to develop a uniform consistency throughout the clay.

Clay is kneaded on a hard smooth surface like a tabletop covered with a piece of canvas to prevent the clay from sticking to the table. The process resembles kneading bread or cookie dough, until the clay feels uniform in texture and wetness and forms a smooth ball.

From the kneaded clay, a piece the size of a baseball is twisted off, and patted into a smooth sphere. The thumb is pushed into the center of the ball, and the clay is gently pinched between the thumb and forefinger as the ball is rotated in the palm of the hand, and slowly stretched into the desired shape. To prevent cracking, the surface of the clay pot is kept moist by dipping fingers into a container of water and smoothing the surface. Too much water, however, will cause the clay to get too soft and the pot to lose shape. The pot is continually turned and shaped until the walls of the pot are even in thickness, about 1/4 inch thick, and the desired shape is achieved.

To make a coil pot, several coils of clay must be prepared by gently rolling clay back and forth on a canvas covered surface, stretching it outward, until a coil of 1 to 1 1/2 inches and uniform thickness is achieved. The length of the coils need not be uniform.

The base is made by pressing the sides of one coil closely together, smoothing inside and out to make a smooth base or spiral of uniform thickness. The vertical walls of the pot are added one coil at a time, carefully joining each coil to the one below it by smoothing with the thumb. Coils should become invisible as a smooth and uniform pot with a pleasing shape forms. Some potters leave the coil design visible on the outside of their pot as a design element; however, the inside of the pot is smooth and the coils are securely joined.

A slab pot, is fashioned with a rolling pin and two flat sticks 3/8 to 1/2 inches in thickness, such as rulers or yardsticks. The sticks are placed apart the width of the rolling pin and clay is rolled between the sticks. The sticks determine the thickness of the clay slabs.

Slab construction is useful for making box shapes, or a circular base. From the slabs the base of the pot is cut. The base and sides are joined with a process of scoring, or scratched lines into the edges to be joined. Very wet clay is used, smearing the clay into the scored surface and then edges are pressed together securely. This wet clay is called slip. The extra slip is smoothed away, making sure pieces are securely joined.

After shaping, pots are put aside to dry. When the clay is leather hard, designs can be added to the surface. When the pot is thoroughly dry or no longer feels cold, it is called greenware, and is ready to fire.

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 an arduous process. Of course, everything about this process is arduous: 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 Yeibichai, representing the mythical Holy People, are particularly prominent subjects in Navajo art.

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, 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 some Navajo potters, has gradually increased pottery production both for the market and for ceremonials.