Pueblo Pottery Beyond the Millennium

By Michael Hice

Founding editor of Indian Artist and Native Artists magazines, SFAOL contributor Michael Hice is currently a freelance writer specializing in Native American art and culture, other types of art, and travel in the Southwest.

In the last three to four decades, entire books and extensive magazine articles have been written on Pueblo pottery. Pueblos known for pottery, and the potters who have become famous for innovative ideas or the precision of their technique, traditional as well as inventive, are examined and re-examined.

I am not attempting to replicate those valiant efforts here, but am taking a glimpse at some early innovators and fundamental characteristics that have become associated with five pueblos famous for pottery. I also examine what a few descendants of recent generations of potters are doing and hear from some of them about where they feel the centuries-old pottery legacy is headed in the 21st century.

The selections I have made are in no way meant to slight all the hard-working potters contributing to the extraordinary evolution of the art form. Space limitations limited selections, chosen for exemplary purposes.

An asterisk * next to a name indicates that the person is deceased.

Acoma Pueblo

Known predominantly for its striking white-slipped ware (black-and-white pottery of fine line design) Acoma has produced substantial amounts of black and orange designs. Also common to Acoma is polychrome pottery in fine line designs, animal motifs, and interlocking scrolls.

Black-and-white designs at Acoma are often optical illusions that tease the eye of the beholder. Some pots are so finely painted with a one-strand yucca fiber that the concentration and patience required to make them stymies the imagination.

Storytellers and nativity scenes are made at Acoma, and some potters attach three-dimensional figures to their pottery. Salamanders and frogs are favorite motifs.

Two women who in the 1950s began to create the legend that Acoma pottery has become were Lucy Martin Lewis* (born circa 1900) and Marie Z. Chino* (born 1907). These women began to adapt prehistoric designs and started a renewal of creativity and quality in Acoma pottery. Both spawned generations of renowned Acoma potters.

Today, an Acoma name that continually arises is that of Dorothy Torivio. Torivio's work is recognizable by that distinctive optical illusion quality. "They even drive me crazy," she says.

In the beginning, Torivio used mostly Mimbres designs. Then she came up with the idea of repeating one design element over the entire pot. Old Acoma designs seen in the archives of the Wheelwright Museum as well as developing her own patterns inspired Torivio. She produces some of the most eye-catching pots covered with designs like the mesa spiral or her four-pointed star pattern, in which the four points of the star represent the four directions.


Most Hopi pottery follows the tradition begun by the great Nampeyo. The traditional look is immediately identifiable by its complex geometric designs, highly stylized birds and feathers and distinctive color. Iron in the clay and traditional outdoor firing produce variations of the distinctive yellowish hue of its slip.

Many Hopi potters are quite innovative, interpreting with individual style the designs initiated by Nampeyo. Potters also often create their own unique designs.

As a young woman in the 1880s, Nampeyo* began to observe ancient Hopi designs on pottery sherds extricated from archaeological digs at Sikyatki. Sikyatki pottery, produced between 1375 and 1625 A.D., is considered some of the most beautiful of all Pueblo pottery. Upon using the designs in her pottery, Nampeyo began a trend that would quickly become one of the strongest pottery traditions of this century. A Nampeyo pot is one of the most highly prized possessions of any 20th century art collector.

Raising the question of the existence of an artistic gene, a large percentage of Nampeyoıs descendants turned out to be renowned artists including her great-granddaughter Dextra Quotskuyva (born 1928). Quotskuyva is regarded as one of todayıs finest Hopi potters. She believes in the importance of the connection of the potter to the earth through the clay. "It reminds us that we come from the earth and return there," she says.

Quotskuyvaıs son is the superlative painter Dan Namingha, who splits his time equally between creating breathtaking painting and spectacular sculpture. His talent defies those who donıt accede to the theory of an artistic gene. Some in the art world consider Namingha the American painter.

Les Namingha, Danıs cousin, is one of the most innovative young potters working today and also now splits his clay time with painting. "Creating pottery is one kind of experience; painting is another. My creative urges are pulled by both. I give pretty equal time to each."

San Ildefonso Pueblo

Though other forms exist, San Ildefonso Pueblo (known as San I to locals) is best-known for three basic looks. One black; one red; and the other black-on-black, the technique developed and made famous by Maria Martinez and her husband Julian in the early part of the century. A stylized feather motif is an image strongly associated with the pueblo.
 The pottery legacy at San Ildefonso begins earlier, but Maria Montoya* (born 1885) who married Julian Martinez* (born 1887) brought fame to the pueblo with their new black-on-black technique . . . new in 1919.

Mariaıs line of descendants produced one of the most prolific and talented potters currently producing in her great-granddaughter Barbara Gonzales. Gonzales laments, "Iım very concerned about many young potters who have no spiritual connection to the clay; they only produce pottery for commercial reasons. For centuries, potters have felt the spirit of the material and conveyed its expression, feeling a bond with the earth and its gifts. Itıs vital to our [Indian] culture."

Gonzalesıs son Cavan Gonzales (born 1970), continues the family legacy. "I feel my traditional pottery is really progressing. I see a resurgence in traditional technique

Though my traditional efforts feel they are moving forward smoothly, I feel a lot of anxiety and impulse toward progressiveness. These are the urges any creative artist feels, especially when meeting artists from around the world."

Santa Clara Pueblo

Santa Clara Pueblo is best-known for carved blackware and polished redware. Contemporary potters are doing high-quality, innovative work in several techniques. Black-on-black and polychrome are popular as are the double-spouted wedding vase and clay figures. High polish, the bear claw, and serpent images are common.
 Examining the legacy of the pottery at Santa Clara Pueblo is a most formidable task. To cover the history of the families, even one family, requires volumes. Therefore, we skip most of the long evolution to examine some recent additions to that famous tradition.

One branch of the family has led to Tammy Garcia (born 1969). "The traditional part of me prays daily over my pots, basically giving thanks to the Creator for the clay and the talent. And respect for the culture sets some boundaries. However, my artist, creative side pushes for new shapes and designs, or new arrangements of design motifs. Stories are told through design work on pottery. For example, the parrot

Tammyıs sister Autumn Borts (born 1967) produces one to two traditional pots to three to four contemporary ones. She uses the traditional serpent motif in homage to her grandmother who taught her the medium. Her contemporary images include hummingbirds, flowers, dragonflies, and water themes. She thinks young potters in the new millennium will be trying to move on and will be highly collectible. She hopes the religious aspects of pottery, what she believes is the heart of the work and the basis of the Indian way of life, continues. "It is important to teach the young these things," she says.

Another branch of the Santa Clara family honors the world famous Margaret Tafoya (born 1904) as its living matriarch. That branch of the family leads us to the famed brother and sister potters Nathan Youngblood  and Nancy Youngblood Lugo.

Nancyıs concern with new generations of potters is the need to carry on the tradition which she does see taking place. However, when organizations such as Indian Market cease differential recognition of traditional versus contemporary pottery, "I feel they are sending the wrong message, de-emphasizing the importance of cultural tradition to American Indians."

"I support the movement of contemporary potters

Nathan Youngblood believes potters should set their own perimeters. He too believes in staying within certain limits of the traditional process. He has four rules: 1) he digs and processes his own clay, 2) he uses the coil method for building pots, 3) he fires outside in a bonfire, and 4) he burnishes with a stone.

"I am walking the same road as many young potters (40s and under). I want to move away from the Oregional artistı concept and consider ourselves American artists, not simply Indian artists. As I said, in believing in the importance of tradition, I think every potter should stay within his or her own set of perimeters, but I will always be pushing the envelope in terms of shapes, design, and size."

Respectfully, Nathan distinguishes between the craftsman and the artist. "The craftsman reaches a level of ability and quality, often high quality, but chooses not to move beyond it. The artist will always stretch for more. I consider myself an artist," he says.

Zia Pueblo

The best-known southern pueblo for its pottery is Zia Pueblo on the Jemez River west of the Rio Grande. The reason Zia pottery and motifs are so familiar and influential is the pueblo has long produced pottery for trade with others. Its motifs can often be recognized in the painting of pottery from neighboring pueblos.

One of the distinctive marks of a Zia pot is the Zia bird, painted on much of its pottery. The bird may or may not have a split tail but has a straight beak. Another recognizable element is a single or double band, which runs from the top of the pot to the lower area. It is frequently called the "rainbow band." Flower motifs are also popular. Zia pottery, with its animal and flower images, strikes many as the most whimsical, fun pottery.

Zia polychrome made today is generally thick-walled, of a reddish clay tempered with ground black basalt. Designs, also geometric, are painted in black or red on a white or buff slip.

A couple that descends from a family of well-known potters making a mark on Zia pottery is Marcellus Medina and his wife Elizabeth (b. 1956). He is a painter who renders beautiful images of various dancers and images of pueblo life on her high-quality pottery.


Style of pottery developed and made popular by potters of San Ildefonso Pueblo around 1920. It is characterized by a dull black paint against a shiny black slip.

A process in which the potter, using a smooth stone, rubs the pot surface until it is very highly polished. Before burnishing, the potter applies several coats of clay slip.

All traditional Southwestern Indian pottery is made by coiling
The process of baking and hardening pottery. All traditional Southwestern Indian pottery is fired outdoors, often using dried cow or sheep dung as fuel.

Kiln Fired
Pottery that has been mechanically baked in a commercial kiln or similar device.

Three or more colors.

A fragment of pottery, sometimes ground and used as a temper. Often found among ruins or out on the mesas, where they should remain unless gathered by Native potters.

A fine, liquefied clay applied to the surface of a vessel prior to firing. Slip fills in pores and gives a uniform color.

An innovation begun in the 1960s, these pottery figures are composed of a seated adult figure with two or more children. The adultıs mouth is usually open, as in telling a story.


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