Chapter XXI. Of the Arts of the Pueblos, Especially the Ceramic


Up: Contents Previous: Chapter XX. Of Walpi, and the Snake Dance There Next: Chapter XXII. Of the Native Government of the Pueblos, and Their Political Status under Ours


[page 220]

LONG before the interloping Spaniard and the later Anglo-Saxon had penetrated into their country, the Pueblo Indians had developed a fair kind of civilisation of their own, and with it arts that were a vital expression of Pueblo life. The wonderful beauty of that land—most of it semi-desert, and some of it pure desert, sublime in its colour and natural conformation—is an inspiration to every artist who visits it, and it is not strange that these dwellers in it from prehistoric times should be an artist people, working into their various arts the conventions of natural objects and the symbolism of the pagan faith given to their forefathers in the dawn of time. Among such arts are the weaving of woollen and cotton garments on rude looms set up in the rooms of their homes;1 the making of basketry of varied forms from native plants; the manufacture of necklaces from beads wrought with infinite care from shells broken up, ground into disks by hand on a wet stone, and pierced with a curious pump drill—an entirely different art, by the way, from the latter-day work of the Plains tribes, using the glass beads of American factories. Among the minor arts, too, I like to include the chipping of arrow-points. This is now practically extinct, since guns have replaced the bow; but the work of dead-and-gone makers is continually offered to visitors and forms a feature in Pueblo curio collections. A really good assortment of arrow-points is a revelation of the hidden beauty of stone. They are made of various minerals—moss agate, flint, chalcedony, sardonyx, lava, obsidian—and hold wonderful charm of colour. In form they are often exquisite, some, for small game, being quite tiny, but all revealing in every patiently wrought line the love of an artist for his art.

Nampeyo of Tewa moulding a water-jar. No wheel is ever used by Pueblo potters. (Copyright by A. C. Vroman)


[page 221]

At the present time, the Pueblo art par excellence


[page 222]

is pottery-making, which is done invariably by the women. The form which it takes is varied; but principally water- and storage-jars, canteens, bowls, and cooking vessels. It is fashioned entirely by hand, no wheel or mechanical device being employed, and in one of the preceding chapters of this book, the process has been described in some detail. In the prehistoric days of Pueblo art, as evidenced by the pottery found in ancient cliff-dwellings, glazing was practised, but that art has been lost and the modern Pueblo ware is unglazed. In the case of water-jars, this is a distinct advantage, as the porosity of the vessel causes a "sweating" which tends to keep the water cool.

The designs of the Pueblo pottery are a study in themselves and of exceeding interest. They are handed down from mother to daughter, and being traditional, their significance may not always be understood by the artist herself. In the main they are conventionalised forms of certain features of her little world and of the phenomena of nature—the mountains, the birds, and animals, the clouds, the falling rain, the wind, the lightning-flash; or of her religion—such as the creatures of


[page 223]

her people's origin myths, the faces of the gods of the Pueblo pantheon, or the suggestion (rarely absent from the work of the older potters) of the mystic gateway of Shipapu, through which the souls of the new-born enter this world and the spirits of the dead pass out of it.

Usually three colours—red, white, and black—are employed, though occasionally only two are used, and in some few of the pueblos the pottery is solid black or solid red, unornamented. In the last-named pottery the dependence for beauty is entirely on the grace and dignity of the shape. Pottery for cooking is invariably without decoration.

The accompanying illustrations of Pueblo pottery are from examples in the writer's collection, bought, in many cases, directly from the potter herself. As will be noted, the work of different villages has characters of its own, distinguishing it from the work of others, yet has a certain harmony with the rest that holds all together in the bond of a common art.

The collection of Moqui is almost entirely the work of Nampeyo, the most famous of the Pueblo potters, and her daughter. To see Nampeyo


[page 224]

at work is to the art lover one of the most interesting sights in Moqui. She is a simple-hearted, unpretentious squaw, who sits on the floor of her dwelling moulding her vessels of clay or adorning them with her wonderful lines, and rising now and then to stir the mutton stew as it cooks upon the fire or lift the baby out of reach of the flame. Though her work, in the words of Dr. George A. Dorsey, ‘‘has gone far and wide over the curio-loving world,’’ she is apparently unconscious that her gift is anything out of the common, and has all the shy modesty that distinguishes the women of her race. The Moqui ware is very distinct from other Pueblo pottery, both in form and decoration. The most common shapes are a low flat bowl and a shallow, wide-spreading water-jar, both adorned with remarkable designs in red and black on a white ground—designs frequently suggested by the masks of the Katchinas, or dancers of the Moqui religious ceremonials. The best Moqui ware is particularly appealing in its colour, the white ground upon which the decoration is laid being distinguished by a soft, creamy tone, flushed usually with red.

In marked contrast to the work of Moqui is the pottery of Zuñi. A feature of the Zuñi decoration is the frequent incorporation of realistic animal forms in the design—deer, ducks, frogs, butterflies, tadpoles. As with the Moqui ware, the colours used by the Zuñis are customarily red and black upon a white surface, but a notable exception is a red ware upon which the decoration is laid on in white. The colour would appear to be an integral feature of any particular form or decoration—that is, given a particular design, it should be painted on in one, particular colour established by tradition. If other colours are wanted, the design must be changed!

A collection of Moqui ware—very distinct from all other Pueblo pottery both in form and decoration.Water-jars of San Ildefonso and Cochití with bird decorations symbolical of lightness.


[page 225]

Flower forms are rarely used by the Zuñis, though a very striking design sometimes met with is a conventionalised sunflower. The potters of Acoma pueblo, on the contrary, whose work is noteworthy for its exceptional lightness, have made rather a specialty of floral and leaf adornment, and some suggestion of plant life is introduced into almost every design. This is the more remarkable as their town is built upon a bare rock that rises almost perpendicularly three or four hundred feet from a great, sandy plain—a singularly barren, inhospitable situation where


[page 226]

there is scarcely earth enough to afford a flower a foothold. In the Indian's art work, however, he loves to preserve the suggestion of that which is most dear and precious to his poetic mind; so, from his standpoint, it is entirely fitting that the leaves and flowers of the plain and mountain, brought from a distance to this rock-founded village of the sky and employed in many secret, religious rites, as well as in the public dance ceremonials, should find representation on the pottery.

Intermingled with these on the Acoma ware are the vertical or slanting parallel lines, which in Pueblo symbolry represent the falling rain, and the terraces and steps which conventionalise the clouds of heaven. A peculiar, checker-board design is also not uncommon in the Acoma work, but its especial significance is unknown to the writer. Bird forms were common in the older work of the Acomas, as well as of other Pueblos, though now less frequent. As a bird in flight is the embodiment of airy lightness, the adornment of the water vessels with the pictures of birds would, in the Indian's fancy, add lightness to the clay—a great desideratum, as the jars, which when filled are borne upon the carriers' heads, often contain a weight of water equal to thirty pounds or more, and to this the vessel's weight is additional.

Zuñi ware, a feature of which is the frequent use of animal forms in the designs—deer, frogs, butterflies, etc. The jar decorated in curves and lines, depicts, as explained by the potter who made it for the author, a pueblo (blocks against which rest poles with cross-pieces representing ladders) and rain (vertical lines) descending from clouds (arches) above. Black, lustrous ware of Santa Clara and San Juan. The only ornamentation used is a slight moulding, as along the bulging edge of the double-necked jar in the foreground.


[page 227]

At Santo Domingo a very superior grade of Pueblo pottery is made—a rather heavy ware, but one distinguished in many cases by an almost Greek grace of shape. The decoration used is a series of triangles, circles, and other geometric forms in black on white that are little short of marvellous in their variety. The chalky white of Zuñi and the creamy white of Acoma are replaced in the Santo Domingo ware with a pinkish tint. Quite recently there has been developed there a deep red jar with pink and black decorations, extremely interesting as a variant of the original, geometric designs of this place in white and black.

The Santa Clara potters, until recently, were pre-eminent among the Pueblos as makers of a lustrous, black ware, the colour being produced by the smudging of the fire so that the black smoke was absorbed into the clay. The pot was then rubbed by hand until the desired lustre was produced. Unfortunately American influences have done much of late to lower the art standards of these people, who in some instances


[page 228]

now use a cheap varnish for their effects. The clay used at this town naturally burns red, if there is no smudging, and Santa Clara ware is accordingly often to be had in solid, unornamented red, as well as black.

The neighbouring Pueblo town, San Juan, has taken up the "black art" of Santa Clara, and is conservatively disposed to hold to the tried ways which made Santa Clara's reputation. Their ware, however, still lacks the grace of outline which has long distinguished the Santa Clara pottery. A double-necked water-jar is a characteristic shape of both those pueblos, though not peculiar to them, as some form of double mouth appears to have been made at times by other pueblos. As the two mouths are joined by a bar, convenience in handling may have had something to do with this shape. The San Juan pottery is thin and light, and it will be interesting to see whether it will eventually gain the crown of excellence which Santa Clara, because of too much American kindergartening, has lost.

A rougher black ware used in cooking at Taos, Picurís, and Nambé represents another sort of Pueblo art. Where the proper kind of clay is not readily obtainable near the village, or where the activities of the people find more congenial exercise in other lines than the potter's, the people are content to make only cooking vessels, crude in form and bare of design, obtaining by trade from other Pueblos the carefully moulded and decorated ware which is the delight of every Pueblo household.

Water-jars of Acoma. The prevalent designs are suggested by flower and leaf forms. The older potters often introduced figures of birds, as in the upper right-hand jar, symbolising lightness. Water-jars of Santo Domingo. This ware is distinguished by an especial grace of shape and a remarkable scheme of decoration in triangles, circles, and other geometric forms.


[page 229]

Besides the commoner shapes of Pueblo pottery employed in the every-day business of the household, there are some forms especially designed for use in connection with religious ceremonials. Among such are the bowl-like vessels for holding the sacred meal, which is sprinkled upon participants in religious rites and dances. In some of these ceremonial pieces the rim is moulded to represent ascending and descending steps symbolising clouds. Upon others are painted forms of frogs, tadpoles, or butterflies—showing how important a part the element of water—that ever-present need in desert life—plays in the prayers of these people. A characteristic Zuñi design is the moulded form—utilised as a handle—of Koloowissi, the sacred serpent which in the myths of that people is represented as having brought seeds from the gods to ancient Zuñi.


[page 230]

Although this native American art, thanks to a few discriminating traders scattered through the Pueblo country of Arizona and New Mexico, still survives in its beauty, it bids fair to pass out of existence within another decade. The quickening cause is to be found in the system of American schooling which the United States Government compels the children to accept, and in which instruction in drawing is part of a general educational scheme. The Pueblos are a gentle, biddable race, unconscious of the marvels of their own artistic gifts, and in the hands of a pushing, inartistic schoolmistress from New England or the Middle West the children produce feeble copies in bright-coloured crayon of the white man's art, which their ignorant teacher shows with pride to visitors as examples of "what an Indian can do when he is taught." Meantime such a teacher is utterly unappreciative of the superiority of the beautiful examples of native pottery, gifts from her timid pupils, which gather dust in corners of the schoolhouse.2 The natural result of this pseudo-education is that the young generation of Pueblo women are growing up in comparative ignorance of the art of their mothers and of the art symbols and traditions of their race.

A basket maker of Mishong'-novi, Moqui.


[page 231]

The idea that there is an Indian art worth attention did get dimly into the mind of a former head of the Government's Office of Indian Affairs, but such attempts as he instituted, with the view of condescendingly fostering the art, have been in the hands of employés who seem to be quite incapable of intelligently handling the case. It appears impossible for the average American to dispossess himself of the conceit that his nation's way is the only really correct way. It does not occur to him that to Americanise Pueblo art is as absurb as to ask Japanese artists to learn kindergarten methods. The truth is, the Pueblos are to be learned from, not taught. Their art is the expression of their nature and of a long, traditional past, and to set such a people to drawing copy-book designs can teach them nothing, while it does stifle absolutely the real art


[page 232]

sense in them. They are a body of conservative artists, who can be trusted, if not interfered with, to develop in their own way the inherited gift of centuries, and to perpetuate the one native American art of to-day. Cannot the more enlightened minds of the country realise that the only right policy for this nation to pursue toward such a people is that of "hands off," and to begin it at once before the old generation of potters is dead and their traditions dead with them?


Notes

1. It was from the Pueblos that the Navajos, the best known of our aboriginal weavers, learned this art. Among the Pueblos to-day only the Hopis and Zuñis do any all-round weaving, though sashes and chongo ties are woven in other pueblos as well.

2. The obtuseness of this kind of mind was illustrated in another way by an American dweller in a district of New Mexico distant from the pottery-makers. He had a beautiful jar of San Ildefonso make, which he showed us admiringly, with the naīve remark, ‘‘That must surely have been done by a girl who had gone to school.’’

Up: Contents Previous: Chapter XX. Of Walpi, and the Snake Dance There Next: Chapter XXII. Of the Native Government of the Pueblos, and Their Political Status under Ours




© Arizona Board of Regents