Thursday, December 6, 2012

Having a Mind of its Own


Cliff Dwellings
Mesa Verde, Colorado
 Before CE 1190
           The Pueblo people are Native Americans whose ancestors, the Anasazi (ancient ones), can be traced back some seven thousand years, to the prehistory of North America. The Anasazi made their homes out of existing caves or on the tops of mesas in the four corners region of the Southwest which includes Colorado, Utah, New Mexico, and Arizona. The reasons behind the mass exodus of the Anasazi people to other regions of the southwest is unknown, however, theories include attack by enemy tribes, drought due to climate change, and lack of land on which to farm.
      Anasazi relocated further south where they joined other tribes of Ancestral Puebloans who lived in villages built using adobe bricks and plaster and they lived in peaceful communities. Unlike the plains Indians who remained largely nomadic and traversed a wide region of the central area of the country, the Puebloans settled in specific areas and have remained there to this day. Although the Spanish and the Indians co-existed largely without conflict, arid conditions, drought, and hostilities led to several revolts after which a number of the pueblos succumbed to Spanish rule and many Indians were massacred. Many who survived were converted to Christianity. Nearly one hundred villages had chapels that were designed in the pueblo architectural style.


 One of the most important traditions in Indian life is pottery making. With thousands of years invested in the craft, the Native American philosophy determines the composition, the form, and the decoration of each pot. Pottery holds a sacred place in Puebloan culture, with its function both ceremonial, as well as utilitarian. The children of Mother Earth who produce pottery are aware of the spirit in the clay, the paint and, ultimately, the vessel itself, which they believe is created from a living thing. The potters refer to the clay as “having a mind of its own,” and the clay will allow the potter to be successful only if he or she approaches making the pot with good spiritual intentions. The “stories” or designs are built into the clay. Pueblo pots carry with them a part of the potter’s spirit— people and place are joined in harmony, in a single story, which is embodied in clay. [1]

Pottery is still made at the Acoma, Laguna, San Ildefonso, Santa Ana, Taos, Tesuque, and Zuni pueblos, while the craft has been recently revived at the Isleta, and Nambe pueblos. The Picuris craftspeople produce an unusual pottery, different from most contemporary pueblo art, in that it is strictly utilitarian and without ornament—similar to the original unadorned pottery made strictly for practical purposes. Each pueblo employs its own unique designs that follow the shape of the pot—some with elaborate decoration that covers the form up to the neck of the ware. Native American tribes have venerated life, nature, birds and other animals, humans, and gods. Realistic and abstracted interpretations probably form the basic elements of Indian designs for all utilitarian and ritual objects.
Maria Martinez Coiling a Pot
San Ildefonso Pueblo
Early Twentieth Century
  For the Native American women who dug the clay for their pots, gathered reeds and rushes for their baskets, sheared sheep for blankets, and worked the leather on which to paint, every aspect of the artistic task was imbued with the divine. In the Tewa language, there is no word for art. There is, however, the concept for an artful life, filled with inspiration and fueled by labor and thoughtful approach. [2] Historically, some tribes allowed only the women to gather the clay and form the pots, while men were not permitted to perform these particular tasks. In addition, men were the decorators and painters of the pots, although that responsibility has evolved throughout the twentieth century as both women and men are now designers. Ceremonial pots and baskets were used in religious rituals, and the result was a spiritual aura surrounding these common objects.

San Ildefonso is one of nineteen pueblos located in New Mexico, and its people have lived on the present site since before C.E. 1300. San Ildefonso belongs to the group of Tewa-speaking pueblos located on the upper Rio Grande, approximately 20 miles from Santa Fe. The traditional name of the pueblo is Po’owo’ge, which can be translated as "Place where the waters meet" [3] Geographically and culturally, San Ildefonso is much like the surrounding local communities, and the pueblos Nambe [4] and Pojoaque. [5] The artistic focus of each pueblo, however, is generated to meet the specific needs of its inhabitants. While the artisans of the Nambe work with the black on black and white on red pottery techniques, the San Ildefonso is more concerned with weaving and has a Hispanic, rather than Native American population. Artistically, the San Ildefonso pueblo is unique—made so by Maria Martinez and the ensuing five plus generations of her family that still manufacture pots in the old Indian manner. 
Olla, rare gunmetal finish
Maria Martinez  and son Popovi Da
9 x 9 inches
Mid twentieth century
          More than any other artist, potter Maria Montoya Martinez influenced white American preconceived notions of what constituted Native American Art. Few artists can claim the world-wide renown enjoyed by this modest, traditional, pueblo woman, who received honorary degrees from major universities, countless citations and medals, and invitations from the White House, extended by four different presidents: Herbert Hoover, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Dwight Eisenhower, and Lyndon B. Johnson. During her lengthy career and her long life, Martinez managed to almost single-handedly revive the rapidly fading art of traditional pueblo pottery. Her accomplishments not only resurrected pride in the culture of the pueblo, but also gave Martínez the opportunity to share her techniques with other artisans who lived there. Martinez’s knowledge and methods were generously shared within the Pueblo community, which elevated their craft of pottery to an art form: the unique, stunningly beautiful black on black pottery.

Next post: Mary Austen, Mabel Dodge, and Maria Martinez

1. Nora Naranjo-Morse, Preface to Mud Woman, Poems from the Clay, (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1992),, (accessed July 9, 2012)

2. Stephen Trimble,  Talking with the Clay: The Art of Pueblo Pottery, (Santa Fe: School of American Research Press, 1987), 13
3. Alice.Marriott, Maria: The Potter of San Ildefonso. Oklahoma: University of Oklahoma Press. 1948, xiv.
4.  Indian Pueblo Cultural Center, Home page for the Nambe Pueblo, (accessed June 23, 2011). “Nambe” means “people of the round earth.” Nambe Pueblo is largely Hispanicized and is almost completely surrounded by non-Indian residents, however, there has been a recent renaissance of interest in the traditional rituals and crafts, and the Nambe artists are making a comeback.
 5.  Indian Pueblo Cultural Center, Home page for Pojoaque Pueblo, (accessed June 23, 2011). Pojoaque is currently undergoing an economic renaissance due to Tribal economic development efforts in the Pojoaque basin area.


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