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    

Rare Prehistoric Homolovi Hopi Pueblo Pottery Bowl C. 1200 Ad - Kachina BundleRare Acoma Pottery Canteen W Original Benham Indian Trading Co. Label, 1900Antique American Indian Pottery Signed Rare Collection (9) Early American Pottery Bowls Mississippian Native DakotapaulVintage Hopi Indian Pottery By Fannie Nampeyo, Native American Polychrome BowlVintage Kewa Pueblo Santo Domingo Pottery PitcherVintage Native American Small Decorated Bowl/ Lucy M. Lewis, Acoma, NmVintage Acoma Pottery, Native American, Pueblo Indian Polychrome Bowl*no Res Black Friday Auction* Hopi Indian Pottery By Award Winner Mark TahboNative American Indian Basket Apache Tribe Circa 1900 Tray Bowl Marie (maria) Martinez Decorated Blackware Pot San Ildefonso Native AmericanLarge Outstanding Authentic Mississippian Banks Noded Pottery Bowl From IllinoisNo Reserve Black Friday Auction Hopi Indian Migration Pottery By Adelle Nampeyo *no Res Black Friday Auction* Hopi Indian Pottery By Award Winner Mark TahboBeautiful Native American Indian Hupa Area Basket Bowl Circa 1900-20's Weaving***no Reserve Black Friday Auction*** Hopi Indian Pottery By Miriam Nampeyo Antique Native American Pottery ~ Iowa Low Bowl Iroquois? Base Marked With InfoNative American Pottery-bowl-birds-flowers-acoma?indian?navajo?painted-7.25in-nrVintage Kewa Pueblo Santo Domingo Pottery Pitcher As IsDextra Quotskuyva Nampeyo Hopi Pottery American IndianAuthentic Mississippian Pottery Jar From Mississippi County, Arkansas Native American Indian Juanita Ortiz Story Teller Pottery Southwest Polychrome *no Res Black Friday Auction**hopi Indian "migration" Pottery By Adelle Nampeyo **no Res Black Friday Auction** Hopi Indian "batwing" Pottery By Adelle Nampeyo Anasazi Artifact Collection 1000 Ad Pottery Bowl Points AxeOld Antique Vintage Hopi Pottery Cylindrical JarAntique/vintage Zuni Native American Indian PotteryAnasazi Mesa Verde OllaAnasazi Cortez Black And White BowlRare Hopi Polacca Pottery Handled Cup, C. 1890 - Excellent ConditionAntique Treenware Basket Barrel Jar Native American? Aafa Folk Art PrimitiveCaddo Pottery Applique Jar, Texas Native American, Prehistoric Artifact IndianVintage Old Maria Santa Clara Native American Pueblo Indian Black Pottery Pot NrVery Fine, Solid Authentic Decorated Mississippian Pottery Bowl1950s Acoma Or Isleta Basket/rain Pot W/ Braided Handle1930’s Hopi Indian Native American Pottery Bowl *no Res Black Friday Auction* Hopi Indian Pottery By Award Winner Loren Nampeyo Vintage Hopi Cylinder Vase Native American Pottery Sadie Adams Hopi Pottery Vessel, SignedVintage Acoma Pueblo Pottery Seed Pot SignedAnasazi Pot 8" Tall, 7" At Widest And 5" At Opening, From ColoradoLot 118: Castle Creek Site Ny Owasko Pottery Vessel Rare Binghampton, NyVintage Acoma Pottery ??, Native American, Pueblo Indian ? Polychrome BowlAnasazi Ancient Arrowhead Lot Native American Trade Beads Old Pottery Shard SetTwo Great Old Navajo Pottery Pots--nr!Lot 115: Blue Rock Valence Susquehannock Pottery Vessel Rare ShultzCherokee Syllabary Pottery Cup - Qualla Boundary - Bigmeat Antique Native American Pottery ~ Small Water Vessel Olla CupBeautiful Large Ernest Vallo Jr Handcarved Acoma Pueblo Bird Pot/no ReserveNative American Indian Anasazi Cliff Dweller BowlCarol Velarde - Deep Carved Native American Santa Clara PotteryRed Starr - Santa Clara / Sioux - Sgraffito Native American PotteryJohnny "tse-pe" Gonzales - San Ildefonso - Incised Native American PotteryNavajo Or Ute Indian Wedding Basket BowlAnasazi Pottery Shards, Excellent ExampleNice Decorated Pre-columbian Pottery Bowl From Early 1900's Arizona CollectionDorothy Torivio - Acoma Pueblo - "butterfly" Pattern Native American Seed PotDorothy Torivio - Acoma Pueblo - "yucca Leaf" Pattern Native American Seed PotSan Ildefonso Native American Black Bowl JuanitaBeautiful Margarita Santa Clara Pueblo Blackware Native American Pot

Recent News: Native American Pottery

Source: Google News

Tipton brothers sell tourism icon
The Durango Herald, November 25th

An expanded store was built at the current location to keep up with demand for Native American pottery. It twice doubled in size. “The Grand Canyon was our biggest account. We could not make pottery quick enough,” Tipton said. At its peak, Mesa Verde ...Read more

Mesa Verde Pottery is sold
Cortez Journal, November 24th

An expanded store was built at the current location to keep up with demand for Native American pottery. It twice doubled in size. “The Grand Canyon was our biggest account. We could not make pottery quick enough,” Tipton said. At its peak, Mesa Verde ...Read more

Native American pottery on view at the Bruce Museum
Greenwich Post, November 23rd

Native American Pottery from the Bruce Museum's Collection will explore the process of creating pottery, from the gathering of clay from the earth through careful firing of the final product. According to the museum, by learning about their mineral...Read more

Millicent Rogers Museum sees largest donation in over two decades
Albuquerque Journal, November 22nd

TAOS – A flurry of significant gifts is swelling the Millicent Rogers Museum's collection of Native American pottery, textiles and Fred Harvey rarities. The donations and acquisitions are the largest the museum has seen in more than two decades...Read more

Native American demonstrations to be held Saturday at Little River Canyon
Gadsden Times, November 19th

There will be a Native American pottery workshop from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturday at Little River Canyon Center. Tammy Beane will demonstrate how pottery was made on Lookout Mountain thousands of years ago. The cost is $5 per person. Call the ...Read more

Photographs Of Antarctica At Bruce Museum
Hartford Courant, November 17th

22, is "Native American Pottery from the Bruce Museum's Collection." Pieces of the famous black-on-black pottery by Maria Martinez of the San Ildefonso Pueblo in New Mexico will be featured along with other specimens. ANTARCTICA: PHOTOGRAPHS BY ...Read more

Greenwich's Bruce Museum Displays Native American Pottery Collection
The Daily Voice, November 17th

The Native American Pottery show will explore the process of creating pottery, from the gathering of clay from the earth through careful firing of the final product. The highlight will be the stunning black-on-black vessels made by Martinez, often...Read more

Native American Pottery
Danbury News Times, October 31st

Native American Pottery. October 31, 2014. Seated male figure, Ceramic, Bruce Museum Collection. Photograph by Paul Mutino. 1of5. Seated male figure, Ceramic, Bruce Museum Collection. Photograph by Paul Mutino. Zuni feasting pot with. 1of5...Read more