Clay is often referred to as being feminine; some potters speak of the “Clay Mother.” Stories about the sacred clay vary among the 19 Pueblo communities. However, one important commonality is reverence for the resource as a gift of the Creator. Before collecting the clay, the potter offers prayers to give thanks and to state the purpose and need for the raw earthen resource.
Clay occurs in a variety of colors and forms. At some Pueblos, there may be more than one location where the different types of clay are gathered. In many cases, a rigorous hike is involved to reach the location where the clay can be found. Some potters will travel long distances, back to ancestral Pueblo homelands, to gather the same clay, mineral paints, and other supplies used by their ancestors to create pottery. The clay is welcomed into the home of the potter with prayer and good intentions.
“The clay offers herself, and we promise to make her proud.”
“Feeling the interior of the jar, where the potter placed her fingers and hands while shaping this piece, connects me not only to her but also our shared past - a living past that is my present and future. The use of ground sherds from older pots for the clay temper brings that past literally into our present, and when these pots are but pieces of the past, they too will carry on our pottery-making tradition. The creation of pottery with the same clay and methods used by our ancestors is the embodiment of our collective spirit. As my grandmother Lucy Lewis would say, “I mix my clay with me.” Each pot has our spirit in it, each has its own personality, and it is this, I believe, that draws others to it."
“Pottery-making is so important and valuable. The knowledge of sacred materials that is passed down between generations in the village is essential, as is the sacredness of the materials. At the beginning of the process, we say a prayer and ask for permission to take the materials. In fact, the entire process of pottery-making is a prayer in action.”
“The pots are more than just beautiful, and they carry more than water; they are endowed with knowledge, love, and respect.”
“When I see our ancestral pottery, the bold painting styles draw me in. The contrasting black-and-white designs are striking and the shapes distinctive. The pieces have an almost contemporary feel. These vessels capture the significance of life and our relationship to the universe.”
The pottery-making tradition is rooted in the enduring cultural heritage of the Pueblo people. Informed by their understanding of and deep respect for the natural environment, the potter creates each piece with great reverence for the clay, water, and other materials to be used. Prayer, song, serene thought, and the physical preparations are essential to the process of creating pottery—from the gathering of the raw clay to the final firing. All of this requires patience, observation of weather patterns, and careful planning to ensure that each finished piece of pottery is in good form. However, every potter understands that the clay has a spirit of its own and may become something entirely different from what the maker intended or may not survive a step in the pottery making process.
Pottery-making is handed down from one generation to the next. In most Pueblos, one is not taught a formal course or handed a booklet of instructions; rather, the tradition is carried on through observation and a hands-on process of working with the clay and other materials. There are female, male, and two-spirit potters, though historically it was predominantly women and girls who produced the pottery. At some Pueblos, the men were responsible for painting designs on pottery. Today, both men and women of all ages create pottery in traditional and contemporary forms.
Most Pueblo pottery is made by hand, employing a coiling method to build water jars, cooking pots, large bowls, pitchers, and storage jars. Other traditional forms, including water canteens, small bowls, ladles, and plates, are made by forming clay into the desired shape. These and other forms are refined through a process of scraping both the interior and exterior. Every object is unique in form as each potter incorporates family preferences for certain items. For example, vessels made for transporting water are highly revered by their user and are often made to reduce splashing during transport, and to fit the top of the head of the user as this is how water is transported back to the home. Traditional pottery forms have also evolved because of changing times and expansion of uses. Over time, storage jars became larger as the need to store more food became essential to the survival of family and community. The introduction to new foods and ingredients resulting from European contact also called for modifications to utilitarian wares.
From forming the pot, to applying slips, to burnishing surfaces, to designing with pigment paints using brushes made from plant fibers or human hair, to the riskiest step in the process—outdoor firing—each step requires great skill, is intentional and time-consuming. A master or novice potter is familiar with their ability and materials and works to create items that are representative of their learned traditional process.
Both historic and contemporary examples of Pueblo pottery represent traditional pottery-making processes. Some potters have incorporated the use of nontraditional materials, supplies, and equipment to ensure the finest quality in construction and design, including the use of commercial clays and paints. In either case, the Pueblo pottery tradition is thriving and continues to be sought after by tourists, collectors, and museums.