This exhibit highlights Native American pottery and silver jewelry created by members of the Navajo, Hopi and Zuni tribes and by the Rio Grande Pueblos.
2000 Years of Pottery History
(Adapted from a background article (unpublished) provided by Russ Hartman, Senior Collections Manager of Anthropology at the California Academy of Sciences.)
Native Americans in the Southwest have been making pottery for almost 2,000 years. Since the late 1800s, their wares have developed an international following, raising craft to the level of art. During those years, the pottery has changed dramatically in some ways, while core cultural traditions and an ingrained respect for Mother Earth and her clay have remained constant. The Academy exhibit Evolving Traditions: Southwest Native Pottery and Silver offers an overview of that 2,000 year journey and a look into the lives of some of the individuals who have sustained this ancient craft within their specific tribal groups.
Exactly when and where pottery production began in the American Southwest is a question that likely will never be definitively answered by archaeologists. People have lived in the Southwest for many thousands of years, but pottery began showing up in the archaeological record only around A.D.200.
Two pottery making techniques are used by today’s Native potters. The potter’s wheel was unknown prior to the arrival of the Spanish and is still not used today. Maricopa potters in the Phoenix area employ the paddle and anvil technique, in which a lump of clay is roughly hand-formed into a desired shape. A stone “anvil” is then held against the inside surface of the emerging vessel while the exterior is pounded with a flat board or paddle, causing the vessel walls to become thinner and rise higher.
All other pottery producing groups, i.e. all Pueblos and the Navajo, begin a pot by hand forming a pancake-like base and then completing the vessel with the coiling technique. Additional clay is shaped into ropes and then added one at a time to the exterior of the base, with each succeeding coil placed atop the previous one. The coils are pinched together and the interior and exterior surfaces are scraped so the coils adhere to each other and produce a smooth surface that can be decorated.
Learning the many steps required to produce quality pottery is a lengthy process accomplished primarily through observation. Gathering raw clay, sifting and curing it, and polishing pots completed by older relatives are all vital steps that involve communal labor and strengthen family ties. Children are encouraged to participate in the process from the time they are very young, and are given increasingly more responsibility as they master each step. Sitting alongside their mothers, grandmothers or other relatives, younger potters are shown how to do each step, but they are never told, “Do it this way.”
“Evolving Traditions” presents examples of pottery from many different tribal groups, allowing for the comparison of the vessel forms, designs, and colors from one group to another. All of the pots are made from clay, but no two clay deposits are the same and the traditions of one tribe or pueblo also differ markedly from each other. As one goes through the exhibit, it should be easy to discern some of these differences that readily identify the cultural identity of the person who made it.
In some tribes and pueblos, families form pottery dynasties, almost always overseen by a family matriarch. Perhaps the most famous Native American artist of all time is Maria Martinez, who along with her husband, Julian, re-invented black-on-black pottery and propelled a growing demand for Native American pottery. The couple demonstrated their craft at the St. Louis World’s Fair in 1904. In addition to family dynasties, many hundreds of other potters make equally beautiful and equally collectible pottery as a symbol of their cultural pride and heritage.
Southwest Native Jewelry
(Adapted from a posting by Russ Hartman on the Academy’s Science Now blog.)
For most of us, the words “southwestern Indian jewelry” usually conjure up images of sterling silver and turquoise. But it’s not that simple. While it’s true that the two materials have dominated the work of Navajo and Pueblo jewelry makers for more than 100 years, it’s actually a relatively recent innovation among southwestern native crafts, beginning around 1870. What’s more, the craft and style is different between the native peoples in the area.
Jewelry making, itself, is an ancient craft among southwestern Indians, dating back 2,000 years or more to the region’s pre-Pueblo ancestral inhabitants. Turquoise mined from local deposits was shaped into beads and pendants for more than a thousand years, but only during the last quarter of the 19th Century was silver introduced by Mexican craftsmen.
At Zuni Pueblo in New Mexico, men learned to work iron and copper about the same time as the Navajo, in the 1850s. Around 1872, a Navajo silversmith taught a Zuni man how to work silver. Not surprisingly, Navajo and Zuni silver jewelry looked very similar in the late 1800s and well into the early decades of the 1900s. Jewelry made for native use was often very heavy and set with just a few large stones, as turquoise was still considered very scarce and valuable. To service a growing number of tourists to the Southwest, one company began the production of lighter weight pieces and, as early as 1899, had contracted with a turquoise miner in Nevada to supply turquoise pre-cut into specific sizes and shapes.
The Hopi Indians learned silver working from their trading partners, the Zuni, sometime in the 1890s, and by 1906 there were Hopi silversmiths in all Hopi villages. Predictably, early Hopi jewelry looked very similar to that made by the Zuni and the Navajo, and remained so until circa 1940s.
Following World War II, a number of factors combined to allow the Navajo, Zuni and Hopi to develop different styles of jewelry that would set their work apart from each other.
Navajos preferred the look of both silver and turquoise in combination with each other, so they retained a style where the silver serves as a base for stone settings. Equally popular is jewelry that does not include any stone settings at all, relying upon filed or stamped designs to accentuate the silver.
The introduction of electricity at Zuni Pueblo in the 1940s allowed for generators to power electric saws to cut ever smaller pieces of turquoise. Previously, Zuni men and women laboriously cut turquoise pieces by hand. The ability to cut smaller and smaller pieces allowed the Zuni to further develop their inlay techniques as well as the setting of hundreds of small stones on a single bracelet or necklace. Unlike the Navajo, the Zuni like to accentuate the stone settings. The silver is merely a means to support the stones. Turquoise, coral, black jet, and white shell are especially significant to the Zuni people and these four materials are often combined on a single piece of jewelry.
Many Native American men served in the military during World War II, and like other veterans, they often returned home with few opportunities for employment. In 1947, a group of Hopi veterans enrolled in a federally-funded GI training program on the Hopi Reservation. The students learned basics of design and how to adapt traditional Hopi motifs from pottery and textiles to silverwork. They used a technique known as overlay, in which designs are cut out from one sheet of silver and then that sheet is soldered to a second sheet. The cutout areas of the first sheet are then oxidized to make them stand out against the surrounding silver. This technique was immediately popular and remains the hallmark of contemporary Hopi silverwork.
Contemporary Native American jewelers capitalize on the traditions fostered by earlier generations, but they also work in a completely different world from their predecessors. Many of them have degrees in art, engineering, and other subjects and have traveled internationally and been exposed to many different cultures. Like their ancestors, these younger artists are influenced in their work by their own life experiences – people, places and events. They combine seemingly divergent traits from one culture with those of their own, just as they fuse one type of metal to another for an entirely different effect. In the end, however, they remain rooted in their own traditions while also forging new ones.