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    

Antique 19thc Tesuque Pueblo, Navajo Indian Pottery, Rain God Sculpture KachinaVery Large Old San Ildefonso Pueblo Indian Pottery Pot - Isabel Pena - 1930Outstanding Authentic Circa Ad 1400 Caddo Keno Trailed Decorated Pottery VesselMae Mutz Native American Hopi Pot With Pictures Of Her Making The PotFantastic Signed Hopi Pottery Decorated DishVery Fine Santa Clara Pot By Grace Medicine FlowerIndian Pottery Bird EffigyNice Authentic Caddo Pease Incised Jar From Bowie County, TexasAntique Tesuque Pueblo Indian Pottery Rain God Figurine Great NecklaceJeanette Sahu Native American Hopi PotLot Of 90 Genuine Anasazi Pottery Shards Nw New Mexico Sherds 2 Authentic Discoidals, 2 Pottery Discs From Hiwassee Island, Tenn.Amanda Swimmer Cherokee Pottery Owl Vase North Carolina Rare MintSanta Clara Hand Carved Bowl By Johanna & Anthony BacaJeanette Sahu Native American Hopi PotHopi Polychrome BowlSigned Eric Tafoya Santa Clara Pueblo Handmade Native American Indian PotteryPottery Pot Zia Pueblo MedinaNancy Lewis Native American Hopi PotVintage Native American Pine Ridge Sioux Pottery Pitcher Signed D LottieSuper Fine Weave Antique Native American Apache Basket BowlCherokee Pottery Jug Qualla Boundary Bigmeat Maney North Carolina Ornate!Caddo Bowl With Decorative Rim -- Found In ArkansasSanta Clara Pueblo 2" Native American Avanyu Seed Pot - Signed Victor EckleberryLoren Nanpeyo Native American Hopi Miniature Pot SignedNice Vintage / Old Hopi Pueblo Pottery Ladle And Bowl Fresh Estate Find N R.Loren Nanpeyo Native American Hopi Miniature Pot SignedSanta Clara Pueblo Pottery By Carmel Romero Unusual Shape Pot Bowl Black Lucy Leuppe Mckelvey Pottery Whirling Rainbow Goddesses Of The Mountainway ChantAntique Southwestern Indian Hopi Navajo Effigy Good Luck Cup Pot Ruth?Anasazi Mesa Verde Partial OllaHopi Pottery Seed Pots (2) With Carved Dancing Kachinas By NampeyoSouthwest Native American Acoma BowlVtg 1950s 60s Pottery Owl Cochiti Pueblo New Mexico M A-martha Arquero Rare Cherokee Indian Pottery Carved School Of Fish Reed In Bowl By CarlaNative American Indian Stone Artifacts Small Pestle Mortar --paint PotSanta Clara Pueblo 3" Native American Avanyu Seed Pot - Signed Victor EckleberryVintage Pine Ridge Olive Cottier Native American Sioux Green Pottery Vase Small Antique (acoma?) Hand Painted Bowl In Good Used ConditionNative American Pottery Bowl Unsigned Distressed ?hopi? 8.5" Brim & 4" TallVintage Signed Adakai Navajo Pottery Vase Beautiful Black Design NrLarge Santa Clara Pueblo Blackware Pottery Jar3 1/2" Pine Ridge Sioux Art Pottery Jar Vase D. Cottier Anasazi Pottery Ladle/dipper Bowl And Part Of HandleAntique Santo Domingo Pottery Bowl With Floral Design Circa 1900Miniature Acoma Native Indian Corrugated Pottery Story Pot Signed C. Garcia N.m.Santa Clara Black On Black Pottery Bowl Signed MatildaMaria Martinez Santana Blackware Feather Jar Pot San Ildefonso Pueblo C1943-56Big Anasazi Black On White Bowl No Restoration Prehistoric Native AmericanAnasazi Mogollon Corrugated Pattern Jar No RestorationDon Swimmer Cherokee Pottery 7'' Tall Bear Vase North Carolina Mint OutstandingSandia Pueblo Pottery By Helen GarciaAcoma Navajo Pottery War Paint Jar: Signed Drew Lewis. Polychrome 3" X 3.5" Native American Vintage Hopi Indian Pottery Bowl With Note 7/25/57Vintage Zia Pueblo Indian Pottery Roadrunner Pot - By I. Herrera -Anasazi Pottery Shards, Spoon / Dipper / Ladle, Arrowhead Collection Lot2 Native American Indian Coiled Basket Bowl & Signed Cm Pottery Jar Early 1900'sVintage Acoma Pueblo Carved Bear Fetish Feathers Pottery Vase Ms/g Anasazi Pottery Ladle/dipper Bowl And Part Of Handle #2Vintage Pueblo Indian Art Pottery Jug Signed Sante San Ildefanso Brown Geometric

Recent News: Native American Pottery

Source: Google News

Events in Connecticut for March 1-7, 2015
New York Times, February 27th

A guide to cultural and recreational events in Connecticut. Items for the calendar should be sent at least three weeks in advance to Comedy. MANCHESTER The Hartford Funny Bone Rod Man. Through March 1. $20. Marshall Brandon ...Read more

Events in Connecticut for Feb. 22-28, 2015
New York Times, February 20th

GREENWICH Bruce Museum “Native American Pottery From the Bruce Museum Collection.” Through March 29. “Northern Baroque Splendor: The Hohenbuchau Collection From: Liechtenstein. The Princely Collections, Vienna.” Through April 12...Read more

Congressman Himes on Bruce Museum: “A Jewel of an Institution”
Greenwich Free Press, February 19th

Kathleen Holko discussing with Mr. Himes the beauty of Native American Pottery. untitled_(234_of_482). Cynthia Ehlinger, Seaside Center Manager with Congressman Jim Himes. See also: Bruce Museum & MakerBot: Feting Our Fine Flippered Friends ...Read more

Events in Connecticut for Feb. 15-21, 2015
New York Times, February 12th

GREENWICH Bruce Museum “Native American Pottery from the Bruce Museum Collection.” Through March 29. “Northern Baroque Splendor: The Hohenbuchau Collection From: Liechtenstein. The Princely Collections, Vienna.” Through April 12...Read more

Fine Arts Club Of Fargo Donates $20000 Vase To UND
Valley News Live, February 12th

It's patterned on some of the Native American pottery that has a very reddish kind of quality to it. The images depicted on the pottery are also Native American images.” Do you have a piece of this rare pottery sitting around your home? Most pieces...Read more

Events in Connecticut for Feb. 8-14, 2015
New York Times, February 5th

A guide to cultural and recreational events in Connecticut. Items for the calendar should be sent at least three weeks in advance to Comedy. BRIDGEPORT The Bijou Theater “It's All Fun and Games,” improvisation. Feb. 13 at 8 p.m. $10...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

Catawba Pottery a Highlight of Southeastern Native Artists' Exhibition
Free Times, September 23rd

When Hernando De Soto explored what is now the American Southeast in 1540, the Catawba — also known as the Iswa, or “people of the river” — controlled much of the land that is now South Carolina. Over the next three hundred years, however, their ...Read more