Native American tribes living in the Southwest—in what became Arizona, New Mexico, Nevada, Utah, and Colorado—didn’t make pottery until around A.D. 100, although they were likely aware of the techniques used in Mexico and South America. As they were nomadic hunters and gatherers, it didn’t make sense for them to lug around heavy pots—baskets and weavings were much more practical as lightweight containers.

It was only after the Southwestern indigenous peoples developed techniques for irrigation and began farming their dry homeland that they needed pots for storing grain—these were probably mud-lined baskets. Pottery made for use in sacred ceremonies came next, followed by pieces made for trade with other tribes such as the Navajo.

The interactions between tribes influenced the imagery, shapes, and techniques used in pottery. Between 1100 and 1330, prehistoric pottery-making reached its height of artistry. This pottery, made by the ancient ancestors of modern-day tribes, can be identified by color of the clay: Brown clay is attributed to Mogollon, white or gray to Anasazi (early Pueblo who lived in the Four Corners region), buff to Hohokam and Casa Grandes, red to Salado, and yellow to Sinagua and early Hopi.

Some of the earliest pieces were made by rolling the clay into long snakelike shapes, and then coiling it up from the base until the potter had a finished piece. The Hohokam and Mogollon also used a method that employed a paddle and an anvil to shape the clay into a jar.

Around 1300, the Pueblos were hit with a drought that killed their crops, prompting enemy nomadic tribes to exploit their weakened state and raid their settlements. They never quite recovered. By the time Southwestern Natives were enslaved by Spanish conquistadors around 1600, their pottery was considered pagan and primitive junk by their subjugators. The Native peoples, who were Christianized and schooled in the ways of the Old World, were forced to use tin, glass, or crockery made in Europe.

Once the transcontinental railroad opened the West to the rest of the United States in the late 1800s, Southwestern Native American pottery experienced a revival. Victorian Era tourists found American Indian wares to be exotic and adorable, and wanted to take an authentic piece of pottery home as a conversation piece for their cluttered parlors.

At the same time, the Smithsonian and other institutions went on expeditions to document the ways of American Indians, whom they believed would soon disappear. These scientists g...

That’s when the Southwestern Native Americans began making pottery almost exclusively to sell to tourists and non-Indians. At first, the Indians made the same sort of pots they would for themselves—large vessels for grains, created laboriously with attention to detail and lavish decoration. However, Anglo merchants pressured the Native artisans to make smaller objects that could fit neatly into Victorian suitcases. Potters soon realized it was more efficient to make less elaborate work with less concern for perfection.

While purists might dismiss the newer generations of Pueblo pottery, it sparked a revival in a dying art. In fact, many 20th-century potters have devoted themselves to re-creating and expanding upon the techniques and simple styles perfected by their ancestors. As a result, Pueblo pottery made today is of extraordinarily high quality because that's what the market demands. Prehistoric pottery is also available, but it is fraught with risk for collectors, as recent laws have prohibited digging on Native lands.

One of the most common shapes in Southwestern pottery is the olla, which is Spanish for “big jar.” Others shapes include the basket, which is a clay bowl with a handle over the top; the bean pot, a deep bowl from Picuris or Taos that's fired at a high temperature so it's safe for cooking; the chili bowl, meant for individual servings; the dough bowl, which is often big enough to knead bread for 12 loaves; a kiva jar, a pot whose stepped shape recalls the steps to a “kiva” or underground ceremonial chamber; the melon jar, which resembles a casaba melon; a storage jar, a grain container that can be two-feet tall; and a seed jar, whose small opening is perfect for shaking out seeds.

Pottery was also made into figural shapes. Effigies are vessels shaped like animals, plants, or humans, while figurines are solid. The term “mono,” Spanish for monkey, was used in the 19th century to dismiss figurines made by the Cochiti and Tesuque. One particularly popular figurine with the Victorians was the Tesuque Rain God, which was mass-produced for tourists between the 1890s and 1930s.

In 1964, Helen Cordero, a prominent potter in the Cochiti Pueblo, produced a figurine with little children sitting all over him, as if they were listening to a tale. These “Storyteller” figurines have been widely popular ever since. If the main figurine is a woman, the figure is called “Singing Mother.” Tourists are also fond of the double-mouthed wedding vase, supposedly designed so the bride and groom can share a drink, as well as curios shaped like miniature “hornos” or pueblo bread ovens—these were particularly popular in the '60s.

Collectors should always be wary of so-called “ceremonial” jars, bowls, or vessels. While dealers might label a piece “ceremonial” to give it air of mystery, the truth is authentic ceremonial pieces are not meant to be sold and rarely make it onto the market. For example, a “fetish bowl,” which is a Zuni pot covered in crushed turquoise with a sidewall hole for inserting carved fetishes, is considered too sacred to be sold. So-called fetish bowls on the market today were probably made by Navajos, who find no spiritual significance in such objects.

It’s also good to keep in mind that objects like plates, trivets, and tulip vases didn’t exist until Anglo Americans introduced these concepts. A lot of the Native American pottery now sold at souvenir shops is made using a pre-cast mold, which is then beautifully painted in traditional styles. This sort of pottery is known as greenware, and can be identified by bumps or divots on opposite sides of the pot.

While the turn-of-the-century obsession with all things American Indian can be blamed for the proliferation of tacky souvenirs, it also turned many gifted Native American potters into celebrities. Nampeyo, for example, became one of the most celebrated Hopi potters in history—her vast family is still making work in her style today.

María Martinez, a.k.a. Poveka, a celebrated potter of San Ildefonso pueblo, was the first to sign her pottery in the 1920s. Before then, many Indian tribes, like the Acoma, considered it a distasteful show of ego to sign one’s work. Other esteemed potters of the 20th century include María’s husband, Julian, and son Popovi Da; Margaret Tafoya, Nathan Youngblood, and Joseph Lonewolf of Santa Clara pueblo; the Victorinos of Acoma pueblo; and Hopi potter Antoinette Silas Honie.

San Ildefonso pottery is traditionally black-on-red ware or polychrome on white or grayish clay, featuring geometric designs. Martinez developed a technique to produce black-on-black pottery and also popularized feather and water serpent motifs with her work. Santa Clara pottery tends to be made of undecorated black clay, with fluted rims and a bear-paw design pressed into the pot.

Traditional San Juan potters also preferred plain vessels, but theirs were red. Potters at Taos, Picuris, and Nambe, however, used a brown clay with sparkling fleck of mica, making painted decorations unnecessary. Santo Domingo pottery, with its cream-colored slip and red base, features rich black paint with geometric, animals, or floral motifs, whereas similar Cochiti pottery has clouds, rain, and lightening, as well as human and animal forms that other tribes considered taboo for non-ceremonial pots.

Acoma pottery tends to slipped in white and painted in black, or black plus hues of red. The popular Acoma designs include complicated geometric patterns as well as flowers and birds. Acoma potters Marie Z. Chino and Lucy M. Lewis introduced a revival of prestoric designs including Hohokam flute-playing fertility god Kokopelli, “picture” designs from the Mimbres-region of Mogollan, and the Zuni “deer in his house" motif.

Though influenced by the Zuni, Hopi pottery came into its own in the 1920s, when Nampeyo reintroduced a style used in the ancient Hopi village of Sikyatki. This pottery ranges from orange to cream, depending on how it was fired, after which it's painted with mineral black, reddish orange, and white in asymmetrical designs of birds, feathers, and sometimes katsinas. The Hopi are noted for their small-mouthed squat jars with flattened shoulders.

Other tribes like the Tesuque and Jemez abandoned their traditional pottery styles in favor of brightly colored tourist trinkets using poster paints and acrylics. A good way to identify these pieces is to consider whether the paint color could have actually come from the ground.

About our sources | Got something to add?

▼ Expand to read the full article ▼

Best of the Web (“Hall of Fame”)

Gouda Design

Gouda Design

Stuart Lonsdale and Kim Lindley's excellent tribute to and reference on Gouda Dutch Art Pottery and Delftware. The … [read review or visit site]

First American Art

First American Art

The companion website to First American Art: The Charles and Valerie Diker Collection of American Indian Art, which… [read review or visit site]

Cowan Pottery Museum Associates

Cowan Pottery Museum Associates

Dedicated to raising awareness of the ceramic art work of R. Guy Cowan and his Cowan Pottery Studio in northeastern… [read review or visit site]

The Pottery Studio

The Pottery Studio

This 7,000-plus page site lives up to its self-billing as a 'knowledge base' with examples of work from all major a… [read review or visit site]



Clubs & Associations

Other Great Reference Sites

Most watched eBay auctions    

Cherokee Native American Sterling Silver & Stone Inlay Pot Lee Epperson | RsOld Northwest Coast Haida Carved Argillite Effigy Bowl3 Examples Authentic Ancient Antique Colima Pre Columbian Pottery Bowls NrVintage Hopi Navajo Sterling Silver Bracelet W Ancient Pottery DesignAntique Cochiti Pueblo Pottery Animal Figure/ Native American Indian/ Santa FePre1935 Pima Southwest Native American Indian Basket Large Storage Bowl W/patinaZuni Native American Pottery Owl Very Fine Authentic Caddo Pottery Pipe From Caddo Parish, LouisianaBig Ancient Mississippian Culture Pottery Bowl Mo Indian ArtifactNative American Pottery BowlAwesome Reassembled Large Anasazi Pottery Jug Top ((look))Very Large - Olla - 9" X 10" - Acoma Hopi Pueblo - Early 20th C - Estate FindAuthentic Mississippian Effigy Pottery Bowl From Mississippi Co., Arkansas Old Antique Caddo Seed Jar Montgomery Co. Ark Ex Museum PieceFine Early 20th Century Native American Makah Thunderbird & Eagle Baketery Jar3d Vintage Navajo S.b. Claw Silas & Bertha Claw Horse Rodeo Pottery Bowl PotAnasazi / Salado Olla Cir 1150 Ad.Vintage Navajo Pa Pauline Adson Corn Pottery Vase PotNative American Pottery BasketRare Papago Village American Indian 2 Handled Huge Basket Bowl WowRosita De Herrera Vintage New Mexico Pueblo Pot American Indian Carved TribalIndian Artifacts - Nice Pottery VesselNative American Pottery BasketOriginal Mccoy Pottery Teepee Indian Cookie JarNative American Indian Acoma Pot OllaBeautiful Old Hopi Pottery Bowl Gorgeous Hopi Indian "migration" Pottery By Miriam Nampeyo $350.00 Gallery ValueVintage Native American Indian Pottery Bowl Isleta Pueblo New Mexico 1930-1940sEarly Catawba Indian Reservation,four Stem Tribe Pottery,york County, Sc S.c.Vintage Barbara Martinez Mini Black Pot Santa Clara Pueblo Jo-povi Cactus FlowerNative American Pottery Bowl Santo Domino Josephine Humetewa 1963 Classic FormPine Ridge PotteryVintage Santa Clara Pueblo Pottery By Denise Chavarria Jug Arrow Liquid VesselAnasazi / Hohokam Salt Red Bowl Flat Bottom Cir 1150 Ad.Vintage Native American Jemez Pueblo Pottery Reyes Madelena Jar New MexicoVintage Taos Pueblo Juanita Cha Corn Red Ware Pottery Vase PotAntique Very Old Native American Jicarilla Apache Indian Basket Woven Bowl**no Reserve**hopi Indian Pottery Plate By Amazing Artist Candy NampeyoTeissedre Vintage Acoma Indian Southwest Storyteller Pottery Sculpture SignedVery Rare Hopi - Otellie Pasivaya Loloma - Museum Quality PotPre-columbian Arifact !! Anasazi Water Jug + 12 Pottery ShardsThree Tribes North Dakota Pottery Bowl By Emmaline Blake Ca7 Indian Artifact Steatite Stemless Notched Bowl Pipe Native American RelicSan Ildefonso Pueblo Black On Black Arrow Spear Steps Indian Pottery Bowl SignedAntique Vintage Acoma Pueblo Indian Pottery Fineline Design Handcoil Pot Sml SizHopi Corn Pueblo Indian Cabinet Polychrome Doll Fetish Pot Signed Miriam NampeyoHopi Pueblo Painted PotVintage Native American Indian Black On Black Santa Clara Vase/bowl PuebloHopi Bowl By Pauline Setalla (navasie Family) 6.5"Antique Native American Indian Pottery Wedding VesselBeautiful Hopi Indian Pottery Jar By Lilian Namingha Gallery Value $150 Old Acoma Southwestern Pueblo Pottery Owl Figurine19thc Hand Woven Native American Sweetgrass 11" Primitive Bowl Rare Tesuque Pueblo Indian Pottery Black Rain God Like Figure--1900-05*no Reserve* Stunning Hopi Indian Pottery By Adelle Nampeyo $350.00 Value Vtg Santa Clara Pueblo Indian Cabinet Pot Vase Signed Stella Chavarria BlackwareBlack On Black Native American PotteryLarge Apache Olla Native American Indian Basket Massive 24" H X 21" Dia Must SeeNative American Handmade Miniature Clay Pot By Becky Pasquale Acoma Spectacular Hopi Indian "migration" Pottery By Adelle Nampeyo $400.00 Value

Recent News: Native American Pottery

Source: Google News

SUNY Potsdam Students Uncover Ancient Relics
WWNY TV 7, July 11th

So far, the group has unearthed several pieces or chips of ancient Native American pottery, stone tools and a spear tip that could be close to 5,000 years old. It was found in a context that was churned up by historic plowing, so it was found with 22...Read more

SUNY Potsdam students dig into history along the Raquette River
North Country Public Radio, July 9th

Jul 09, 2014 — Student archaeologists excavating a site along the Raquette River in Potsdam have unearthed pieces of prehistoric Native American pottery, stone tools and part of a spear tip that could be 5,000 years old. The SUNY Potsdam Anthropology ...Read more

Email Invaluable Announces Exclusive Online Bidding on Link Auction Galleries ...
ArtfixDaily (blog), July 2nd

“From noteworthy American Art to an amazing collection of Native American pottery and Asian antiques, we know Invaluable bidders will be excited to participate in Link's Summer Gallery auction.” The two-day auction will kick off on Saturday, July 12...Read more

Hundreds show for Shark Teeth Fairy Hunt at Port Royal's Sands
Hilton Head Island Packet, June 30th

Since word got out, he has received donations from collectors across the world, ranging from fossilized teeth and bones to Native American pottery shards, according to Harris' Facebook page. More than 300 pounds of objects were used in Saturday's hunt, ...Read more

Walk through past at Indian Temple Mound museum
The Northwest Florida Daily News, June 29th

Hidden gem: The Indian Temple Mound Museum has a large collection of Native American pottery. The patterns on the pottery are how archaeologists distinguish different tribes. Look for the bowl with a crashing wave pattern, which represented the Indians ...Read more

Barreda has come a long way from his southwest roots
The Times, Trenton, June 25th

When Sahuarita High School was built in 1998, a few miles from Tuscon, Native American pottery was discovered. Barreda said a lot of it remains on display in the school's front office. “It's pretty neat to be part of all that stuff,” said Barreda, who...Read more