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 Handmade Artist Signed Santa Clara Black Pueblo Indian Pottery Bowl, NrVery Old Hopi Pottery CanteenAcoma Or Zuni Southwestern Indian Olla, Quite Old, AmericanLarge Old Acoma Pueblo Pottery Jar N R. "fresh Shed Find" Old Native Apache Indian Basket OllaAntique Illustrated Book Bureau American Ethnology Hopi Indian Pottery DesignsMaria Marie Santana Martinez Vtg Mid Century Black Feather Pottery Dish IndianVintage Mid Century 8" X 5" Acoma Pueblo New Mexico Clay Black On White PotVintage Hopi Indian Pottery Bowl Native American Rare Antique No Reserve. Very Nice Old / Vintage Laguna Pueblo Pottery Bowl N R.Very Nice Small Old / Vintage Acoma Pueblo Pottery Jar N R. Native Hopi Indian Pottery - Tonita Nampeyo Old Native Hopi Indian Pottery CanteenL Patricio Acoma Native American Indian Pottery Acoma Sky City 8inches TallVery Nice Small Old / Vintage Laguna Pueblo Pottery Canteen N R.Nice Authentic Caddo Keno Trailed Pottery Vessel From Hempstead Co., Arkansas Anasazi '' St.johns Polychrome ' Bowl 1250 Ad..Rare Authentic Anasazi Grayware Effigy Pottery BottleAntique Native American Indian Pottery San Ildefonso Black Decorated Olla VaseSanta Clara Native American Indian Art Pottery Black Signed HemlockNative American Pottery Bowl Mary H Loretto Jemez Pueblo Indian VintageNative American Santa Clara Black Pottery Bowl Artist Signed John Vintage IndianRare Authentic Mississippian Gourd Effigy Pottery Vessel From Scott Co., MoTwo Vintage Acoma Pueblo Pottery Birds. Quail And Turkey. Signed. N.r. Nw Haida Salish Style Ceremonial Wood Carved 15" Eagle Vessel Dish "loon" BowlAntique Native American Indian Pottery Santa Clara Large Black Wedding Vase Vintage Native American Indian Pottery Jemez Storyteller Lupe Lucero Loretto Early Southwest Painted BowlEarly Casa Grande Painted Bowl - Sears Collection*nr* Blackware Pottery: Miniature Signed Melon Jar, Rosalie, Santa Clara PuebloMaria + Poveka [martinez] Bowl 10" SignedGreat Old Hohokam Paint Pot--nr!Arkansas Caddo Buzzard Effigy Bowl - Restored - CoaIndian Artifacts - Nice Decorated Pottery Vessel (solid) Authentic Tn. Stone Paint Pot Indian Arrowhead Artifact Aaca Vintage Pueblo Acoma Pottery Native American New Mexico Miniature Vase Signd YqzBeautiful Exotic Swift Creek Pottery Section Deep South Artifact Arrowhead ~29~Awesome Pottery Bowl Section With Legs Deep South Artifact Arrowhead ~27~Very Rare Taos Pueblo Pam Lujan-hauer Decorated Native American Indian Bowl PotAnasazi Pottery Shards 30 Pieces, Mostly Large In SizeVintage Mini Bowl Stone Paint Makeup Medicine Native Rock North Dakota IndianSanta Clara Black Pottery Squirrel Animal Effigy FigurineMiddle Mississippian Period Incised/ Stamped Pottery 6.5" X 6.25" Red Slip?Indian Pottery Bowl Artifact.Hopi Indian Pottery Turtle By Laurel Hamilton Grandaughter Of Tonita Nampeyo Old Native American Indian Paint Pot Artifact Rock Eastern Long Island New YorkNative American Bowl By C. Augustine (acoma), 7" Dia By 6.5" High.Navajo’s Pitch Pot Pottery Large Vase – Lorraine Williams, SignedSigned Marcellus Elizabeth Medina Native American Zia Art Pottery VaseVintage 1988 Signed Reola Harris Catawba Indian Pottery 9" Vase South CarolinaAnasazi Pottery Shards 50 Pieces 18 Arizona Anasazi Pottery Shards, Prehistoric American Indian ArtifactsVery Nice Pottery Bowl Deep South Artifact Arrowhead ~29~Authentic Pottery Shards Anistazi Indian Artifacts Anasazi Pottery Shards 29 Pieces Vintage Acoma Pueblo Bird Figurative Pot With Twisted Handle 4-1/4" X 3-1/2"Vintage Acoma Native American Pottery Vase Signed D. TrujilloSanta Clara Pueblo Pottery Blackware Wedding Vase Signed By Artist Peggy TafoyaVintage Santa Clara Pueblo Blackware Native American Pottery Vase Chris MartinezPottery Bear Fetish Wall Hanging, Teal W/ Feathers & Handprint, 7.5" Long, 5.5"h

Recent News: Native American Pottery

Source: Google News

Red Wing, Hastings and Prescott are a trail of art, antiques and boutiques
TwinCities.com-Pioneer Press, August 28th

Across the street, Dahcotah Coin and Art spotlights Native American pottery and art. On Main Street, Doig Photography Studio & Art Gallery features a selection of art to browse and shop, open on weekends. Off Levee Street parallel to Main Street and...Read more

Contemporary sgraffito featured at CRAFT
Courier-Gazette & Camden Herald, August 28th

It can be found in 15th-century Italian ceramics to Native American pottery all the way to the contemporary pottery of Christensen. The artist will attend the opening Friday evening to discuss his work. CRAFT will extend the current show of Dudley Zopp...Read more

Native American Music and Cultural Festival has 'Mountain Magic'
The Daily Times, August 28th

The Saturday concert starts at 1 p.m. The hands-on classes (Saturday only) take place from 1 to 4 p.m. There will be Native American pottery, with a $5 charge and limited to the first 30 participants. There is no additional charge for storytelling with...Read more

September 2015 events for the Joplin area
Joplin Independent, August 25th

This work was collected by the late Pam Denniston and includes 3-D art: folk and contemporary sculpture, marionettes from China and France, baskets and art glass, Native American pottery and whimsically painted furniture. Featured paintings and...Read more

Artifacts From Bertie County Site May Help Solve Centuries Old Mystery
Public Radio East, August 17th

Since excavation began, Evans says dozens of European artifacts have been uncovered. Archeologist are also finding Native American pottery pieces, indicating that early settlers most likely made contact with the Algonquian tribes in the area. “There's...Read more

At the Barnes, art as therapy
Philly.com, August 15th

Before they even entered the galleries, standing by the coat check, the four girls were entranced by Native American pottery. "Who knew circles and squiggles could be so inspirational," Plaid scribbled. Into the first gallery they walked, into the...Read more

We Finally Have Clues to How America's Lost Colony Vanished
National Geographic, August 7th

During a two-day excavation in July, the sieves produced ample Native American as well as European materials, including deer and turtle bones, homemade and imported brick, Native American pottery, hunks of European iron, parts of a 16th century gun, ...Read more

Treasure: Native American pottery pieces are ancient
The Detroit News, June 25th

Regular viewers of Antiques Roadshow recognize Native American pottery as an item that often brings large estimates. Despite this, it's not a frequent item sent to the column, so we were more than a little curious when Brian Hellis sent in some pieces...Read more