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The Matriarchs: Pottery by American Indian Women

Blog Category:  Artist Spotlight
Blackware jar made of clay and volcanic ash. A painted, matte design adorns the upper half of the jar.
Blackware pottery vessel with tall double-neck. The flawless, polished black surface is reflecting the light/
Margaret Tafoya, Wedding vase with bear-paw imprint, 1973; Blackware; Collection of Theodore and Louann Van Zelst; Photograph by Rob Orr

One of the most enduring traditions in American Indian life is pottery, which plays a central role in tribal rituals and ceremonies. Made primarily by women. these objects reflect both their personal innovations and a solid grounding in a 2,000-year-old tradition which influences the composition, form, and decoration of the pots to this day.

Brown bowl with illustrations of an eagle tail.
Nampeyo of Hano, Bowl with eagle tail design, 1903; Polychrome; Collection of Martha Hopkins Struever; Photograph by Craig Smith

This blog post will touch on the six Native American matriarchs who have been universally recognized for their important contribution to the field of pottery. For decades American and international arts communities have known their names: Old Nampeyo of Hano (Hopi), Maria Martinez (San Ildefonso), Lucy Martin Lewis (Acoma), Margaret Tafoya (Santa Clara), Helen Cordero (Cochiti), and Blue Corn (San Ildefonso). Their work is the foundation of the Indian pottery tradition as we know it today.
Born between 1860 and 1920, these potters lived and worked during a time when their communities faced great change due to increasing Euro-American influences. The matriarchs fought to maintain the strength of their communities through their devotion to native traditions and to their art. Their pottery reveals uncommon talent, vitality, and vision; their life stories reveal persistence in the face of adulation.

A woman with a light medium tone and gray hair is shaping a ceramic bowl.
Maria Martinez

Hopi potter Nampeyo of Hano was the first of these American Indian artists to be known by name. By reviving ancient Sikyatki designs, a 12th-century-style polychrome indigenous to her vicinity, she revolutionized her pueblo’s pottery. Her work became so well recognized that she was asked by one of the West’s most well-established merchants of Indian pottery, the Fred Harvey Trading Company, to sell her wares in the Hopi House at the Grand Canyon in 1905.

Twenty years later, Maria Martinez and her husband, Julian of San Ildefonso Pueblo, became known for developing an innovative black-on-black style based on ancient pot shards from the nearby archaeological site of Puye. As art dealers became aware of the beauty of these pots and encouraged the interest of collectors, Martinez’s success grew, and she became the best known of the American Indian potters. With a career spanning eighty-five years, her widespread popularity drew attention to many other American Indian artists.

A jar with a repeated feather design before a blue background.
Blue Corn, Jar with feather design, 1978; Polychrome; Collection of Ruth and Robert Vogele; Photograph by Greg Gent

Like Nampeyo and Martinez, the other matriarchs, Lucy Martin Lewis, Margaret Tafoya, Helen Cordero, and Blue Corn, all developed individual styles, which have since been handed down from generation to generation. The achievements of the matriarchs sparked a new artistic and economic life for American Indians and gave their descendants a lasting cultural legacy.

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