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 Large 1920’s Zia Pueblo Painted Pottery Bowl Pot - Fresh Hawaii Estate FindRare 1890's Zuni Pueblo Pot - 1 Of Many Southwest Artifacts Listed - No ReserveVintage L Garcia Acoma Nm Pueblo Native American Indian Eye Dazzler Pottery PotVintage Antique Zia Pueblo Native American Pottery Olla Pot Florence ShijaVery Nice Acoma Pueblo Native American Pottery Olla Pot Emma LewisMimbres Bowl Anasazi Indian Pottery Pre Historic Southwest 1978 Native American Indian Jody Folwell Santa Clara Pueblo Pottery JarRare Zuni Pueblo Deer Pottery Pot Circa 1900 - One Of Many Artifacts ListedAwesome Indian Pottery Bowl Georgia Florida Arrowhead ¬10Historic Zuni Polychrome Olla Circa 1860s-1870sRare Navajo Polacca Pottery Effigy Circa 1880 - Tattoo Designs - No Reserve!Miniature Pueblo Acoma Pottery Native American Seed Pot Rachel Concho No ReserveBeautiful Signed (ruth Polacca) Hopi / Tewa Pottery Pot In Excellent Condition6"x3" Anasazi Arkansas Shell Tempered Pottery Bowl No Restoration CoaAnasazi / Salado / Pinto Black On Red Bowl Cir 1280 To 1330 Ad.C1950 ~ Navajo Native American Southwest Hand Woven Indian Wedding Basket Bowl C1965~ Navajo Native American Southwest Hand Woven Indian Wedding Basket Bowl Outstanding Authentic Mississippian Compound Pottery Vessel Pemiscot Co., MoMississippian Duck Effigy Bowl Published Indian Pottery Prehistoric NativeAntique Hopi Pottery Bowl Pot Hand Painted Antique Hopi Pottery Bowl Pot Hand Painted Gorgeous Hopi Indian "migration & Eagletail" Designed Pottery By Adelle Nampeyo Beaver - Canoe Or Warriors Cup / BowlVintage Acoma Pueblo Indian Native American Pottery Olla Pot Kachina SignedAcoma Pottery Olla Bowl PotOld Antique Santa Clara Pueblo Black Primitive Crude Pottery BowlIndian Artifacts - Nice Pottery Vessel (solid)Vtg Lucy Leuppe Mckelvey Native American Navajo Pottery "from The Corn We Came""indian Relics Of Northeast Arkansas" Book Arrowhead Pottery AutographedAcoma Pottery Jar C.1930's Possible Lucy Lewis Older Piece! Exc!Vintage Native American Pueblo Hopi Pottery By MarcellaFine Vintage Hopi Black On Red Pottery Bowl Signed Frieda PoleahlaEstate Found Native American Indian Pottery Anasazi Fire-hawk Effigy Amazing Prehistoric Anasazi Gila Polychrome Pottery Bowl-1150-1450 Ad!Antique Acoma Pottery Bowl Pot Hand Painted Anasazi Ancient Arrowhead Lot Native American Trade Beads Old Pottery Shard SetVintage Native American Indian Minnie Vigil Santa Clara Pueblo Pottery Seed JarAuthentic Indian Stone Artifact : Metate / Grinding BowlGorgeous Traditional Hopi Indian Pottery Jar By Award Winner Verla Dewakuku Three Signed Hopi Miniature Bowls & One Red Clay Southwest Heritage Bowl ~~l@@k~Small Signed Clara Martinez Native American Blackware PotMartinez Maria/popovi San Ildefonso Native American Blackware Pottery JarAlta Yesslith Hopi Pottery Bowl 8" Diameter 6" HighSanta Clara Pueblo Pottery ~tewa Pueblo, New Mexico ~ Carved Big Horn Sheep Antique Native American San Ildefonso Blackware Pottery Two Handled VaseStunning Traditional Hopi Indian Pottery Jar By Lilian Namingha Antique Hopi Pottery Bowl Pot Hand Painted Antique Hopi Pottery Bowl Pot Hand Painted Northwest Coast Style Bowl, Heavy Wood CarvedSouthwester Paint Pot Anasazi Plain Ware. Museum-quality Santa Clara Pot By Harrison Begay Jr Gorgeous Hopi Indian "hummingbird" Pottery By Award Winning Artist Alice Dashee Hopi Pottery Turtle With Paw Print Signature Marking ~~l@@k~~Fine Woven Early 1900 Native American Nw Tsimshian Polychrome Basketery JarSanta Clara Pueblo Indian Pottery Miniature Wedding Vase - Shirley TafoyaPre-historic Bowl 1200 A.d.Original M. Antonio Acoma Pueblo Native American Pottery Bear MotifSanta Cruz? Bowl 7" X 1 1/8" Cracked & Stabilized Authentic!Small Pottery Pot By Zuni Pueblo Artist Priscilla Peynetsa Of New Mexico 4w X 3hLot Of 2 Authentic Ancient Anasazi Drilled Pottery Pendants From Utah

Recent News: Native American Pottery

Source: Google News

Erik Compton a 'walking miracle'
Utica Observer Dispatch, August 27th

Jhonattan Vegas was sharp on the golf course Wednesday, and the International Team defeated Team USA 20 under par to 18 under par at the seventh annual Notah Begay III Foundation Challenge charity golf tournament at Turning Stone Resort Casino's ...Read more

NM museum reflects artist Robert Henri's 'open door' policy
Albuquerque Journal, August 23rd

But New Mexicans also saw Native American pottery and Chimayó weavings, as well as shows with Chinese paintings, Japanese woodblock prints, Old Master etchings, Indonesian textiles, pre-Colombian sculpture, Sioux ledger drawings, Aboriginal ...Read more

100 Years of History at Southwest Museum Site
EGP News, August 21st

the Autry National Center welcomed new visitors and long time supporters, many of whom couldn't help but feel a mixture of excitement and melancholy as they wandered through the historic site taking in the exhibits of Native American pottery and...Read more

Uncle Sam's antique man
Pocono Record, August 18th

runs a business from an old carriage barn and leases both buildings from Uncle Sam. "I try to find unusual things," said Cosh, standing inside Phoenix Antiques, as he described the store's inventory of jewelry, gifts, collectibles, Native American...Read more

Making sure it was done right: WSU professor, philanthropist hid big heart ...
Winona Daily News, August 10th

Ervin donated numerous collections to WSU, including Native American pottery, jewelry and sculptures on display in the Darrell Krueger library. He also donated a number of bronze statues, the James Heinlen “Remembrances of Winona” collection, and a ...Read more

Turn your horse into a work of art
Horse & Hound, August 3rd

“It was while I was looking at Native American pottery at college that I came across the Navajo technique of horsehair pottery. I adapted this technique to make it more contemporary to suit my needs. As a horse owner, I especially enjoy making...Read more

Archaeology Dig To Precede Construction at Historic Astoria Cove Site
Commercial Observer, August 1st

area that got the name “Pot Cove” from Native American pottery remains in the cove–as well as potential excavations of cisterns and privies that could shed light on 19th-century mansions which once dotted Astoria Village–merit digs on the Astoria...Read more

Couple puts the pieces of broken art back together
Kankakee Daily Journal, August 1st

An Arizona native, she remembers digging through desert sand for Native American pottery as a child. Her background is painting, and she's the scientist behind matching colors and applying the finishing touches. "I've been doing it for 34 years," she said...Read more