Historical Context

Women from Laguna Pueblo selling pottery outside Post Office building at railroad station, Laguna, New Mexico. 1905? Courtesy of the Palace of the Governors Photo Archives (NMHM/DCA). 044830.
Women from Laguna Pueblo selling pottery outside Post Office building at railroad station, Laguna, New Mexico. 1905? Courtesy of the Palace of the Governors Photo Archives (NMHM/DCA). 044830.

A series of early archaeological expeditions throughout the Southwest caused the unethical removal of human remains, associated funerary items, and vast amounts of artifacts — including ceramics — from the ancestral homelands of Pueblo people. Literally hundreds of thousands of artifacts were removed that are now in museum and university collections, with some in the hands of private collectors. These expeditions included the Hemenway Southwestern Archaeological Expedition, 1886–94, initially led by Frank Hamilton Cushing and later by Jesse Walter Fewkes; and Stewart Culin’s expeditions for the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology and then the Brooklyn Museum in the early years of the 20th century. By 1906, George Gustav Heye had accumulated more than 10,000 objects now at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian. Many of these collections have been studied for the purpose of advancing scholarship on Pueblo people and presented in exhibitions, many with a narrative drawn from non-Indigenous history and science only.

It must be understood that most Pueblo communities do not condone the practice of archeology as it is regarded as unethical to disturb and remove ancestral human remains and other materials from ancestral settlements. Pueblo people believe the human remains, funerary materials, cultural objects, and other items left behind by their ancestors are integral to the continued cultural significance of these sacred places. Enactment of federal policy combined with tribal-led initiatives focused on securing rights to land and other resources, the protection of sacred sites, and repatriation, have forced some conservative Pueblo communities to be exposed to the archeological record associated with excavations of their ancestral homelands. Some Pueblos, however, maintain stringent rules about exposure to said records, photographs, and excavated objects now housed in museums and private collections. In respect to these cultural sensitivities, this narrative does not delve into the complex and troubled history associated with early practice within the field of archeology.

Gossiping, San Juan Pueblo, New Mexico. 1905? Photo by Edward S. Curtis. Courtesy of the Palace of the Governors Photo Archives (NMHM/DCA). 031965.
Gossiping, San Juan Pueblo, New Mexico. 1905? Photo by Edward S. Curtis. Courtesy of the Palace of the Governors Photo Archives (NMHM/DCA). 031965.

Decades later, federal laws, including the Archaeological Resources Protection Act of 1979 and the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act of 1990, now prohibit excavation and protect these collections and resources. Most important is the mandate to return (repatriate) Native American human remains and their associated funerary items back to affiliated tribal communities and, prohibit the sale and illegal trafficking of said resources. Only recently have museums and other institutions developed policy and practice that engage Native people in discussions about the collections themselves and about how descendant community members can access collections for the purpose of supporting tribal initiatives including culture and language preservation, revitalization of traditional arts, advocacy around land and resources protection, and long-term loans to tribal museums for internal research and exhibition.

By the late 19th century, Pueblo pottery became classified as an art form largely due to the influence of early anthropologists like Edgar Lee Hewett, traders, and collectors, who often formed collectives like the Pueblo Pottery Fund (later the Indian Arts Fund), all of whom were amassing large collections of Native American material culture and other objects in the name of “salvage ethnography.” Pueblo pottery is one category of material culture that was most accessible and desired by collectors. In 1922, the first Indian art market took place in Santa Fe, New Mexico, bringing together Pueblo people who were actively making pottery, jewelry, and other crafts for sale. This annual event, known today as the Santa Fe Indian Market, continues to draw thousands of people including collectors of Native American Art, museum curators, art dealers, and tourists from all over the world.                               

The introduction of significant transportation systems, including the Transcontinental Railroad, completed in 1869, and historic Route 66, which connected Chicago to Los Angeles, commissioned in 1926 and completed in the 1930s, created greater accessibility to Pueblo country, which resulted in the removal of large amounts of pottery from the respective Pueblos. Pueblo potters of this period were also actively producing utilitarian wares and pottery for ceremony and other uses, including some pots made for sale. During the late 1800s, some Pueblo potters began creating decorative pieces of pottery inspired by images of glass and dinnerware seen in magazines and newspaper advertising. In addition to traditional pottery forms, vases, pitchers and other pots with fanciful handles, ash trays, and animal figurines were made   and were transported in baskets (sometimes carried on the heads of the potters themselves) to local train depots or to the roadsides of historic Route 66, where passersby and tourists stopped to purchase pottery as souvenirs.

Unidentified woman with large pot, Zia Pueblo, New Mexico. 1910-1925? Photo by Jesse Nusbaum. Courtesy of the Palace of the Governors Photo Archives (NMHM/DCA). 158095.
Unidentified woman with large pot, Zia Pueblo, New Mexico. 1910-1925? Photo by Jesse Nusbaum. Courtesy of the Palace of the Governors Photo Archives (NMHM/DCA). 158095

Other influences on the pottery production at some Pueblos were collectors, museums, traders, and collectives of early art dealers that included Amelia Elizabeth White, Mary Cabot Wheelwright, and Kenneth Chapman. In some cases, specific potters were identified and commissioned to produce traditional pottery forms as well as more contemporary pottery. This resulted in the exposure of certain Pueblo potters, including Maria and Julian Martinez of San Ildefonso Pueblo, Nampeyo of the Hopi Tribe in Arizona, and Lucy M. Lewis of Acoma Pueblo all of whom influenced a new era of Pueblo pottery-making that would reinforce the tradition as an art form. These influences caused potters to begin signing their pots for the first time; to introduce nontraditional elements to traditional forms, including the addition of clay lids to water and storage jars; and to develop the first art fairs showcasing Pueblo pottery. Even while the demand for pottery as art became an additional task for potters to navigate and manage, pottery made for utility and ceremony remains central to the continuance of this ancient tradition. 

Today, Pueblo pottery can be found in museum and private collections throughout the world. A recent movement within the field of museology is evolving, creating opportunities to work collaboratively with source communities to improve museums understanding of the Native collections they hold, to develop culturally relevant approaches to long-term stewardship, provide access to collections, and engage tribal representatives in exhibition planning and development. Some institutions that hold ancestral human remains, associated funerary objects, and culturally sensitive materials are also implementing strategies to advance federally mandated consultation in order to fulfill the intent of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act of 1990. Most significant are those initiatives that provide access to collections and that are inclusive, fully engaging source community representatives in meaningful and mutually rewarding work. For the first time in the history of these colonial institutions, Native voices and knowledge are recognized as critical to changing narrative and establishing new standards for collections care. 

Grounded in Clay: The Spirit of Pueblo Pottery is part of this growing movement that centers Native voices and perspectives, amplifying their knowledge and stories. The exhibition was curated by the Pueblo Pottery Collective, a collective of more than 60 Native American community members from 22 Pueblo communities in the Southwest. The collective includes potters, designers, and other artists, as well as writers, poets, community leaders, and museum professionals. A small number of non-Pueblo museum professionals were facilitators and writers for this project, and are also part of the collective. This revolutionary exhibition includes 116 pieces of Pueblo pottery drawn from the Indian Arts Research Center and Vilcek Foundation collections and is accompanied by a fully illustrated catalogue that includes entries from each member of the Pueblo Pottery Collective.

The Vilcek Foundation collection of Pueblo pottery represents a glimpse into the culture, innovation, and perseverance of Pueblo people. The collection honors the Pueblo people of the past and present, their enduring pottery-making tradition, and pays deep respect to the stories (though sometimes unknown) of each individual vessel.

Experience Grounded in Clay: The Spirit of Pueblo Pottery in person at the Vilcek Foundation.

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