Southwest Native American Pottery, From Utility Ware to Art in Twenty Centuries
The legacy of Native American Indian pottery is an ancient one, dating back some two thousand years. The earliest Southwest potters were probably those of the Hohokam culture, in southern Arizona. They usually made plain brownish or gray vessels called “utility wares”. How the discovery that clay, when heated at high temperatures, could transform into an object that is brittle and holds its shape is a mystery. Some scholars think that the technique came to the early Southwest from Mesoamerica. Others contend that the technique originated into the Southwestern cultures independently. Either theory begs the question. One possible scenario for the discovery of the technique is that the early cultures lined their cooking baskets with mud that would harden and create a better and more durable surface on which to cook and parch. The archaeological record may support this theory as early vessels have been found with the unmistakable imprint of baskets on their outer surfaces. That individual, who first conceived that the hardened, brittle substance that filled a cooking basket could be made into a vessel in and of itself, was to create a legacy for his or her people forever. Rodents can gnaw through a woven storage basket and wreak havoc with the hard won seeds and meals stored there. A “hard” basket would thwart them. A “hard” basket could be coated with pitch just as a “soft” one could, and be made waterproof (Southwestern Native American pottery to this day is not normally glazed and will not hold water without some such inner coating). The “hard” basket could be used for cooking much more efficiently than a soft one. The idea must have been revolutionary. However, a “hard” basket can also crack or shatter. This trait made the use of pottery a luxury to be enjoyed only by the sedentary culture of the Puebloan village. The nomad cultures of the Great Plains and the semi-nomadic Navajo, Ute, and Apache of the Southwest never made or used pottery to any great extent.
For some 20 centuries, the Native American potters of the Southwestern deserts have produced ceramic vessels that give expression to their heritage. Through their distinctive and enduring work, they have marked the boundaries and durations of their traditions, the cultural reach of their people, and the courses of their trade routes and migrations. In the bodies of their vessels, they have left clues to sources of raw materials and techniques of manufacture. In their designs, they have embraced symbols of their religious and mythological beliefs, and they have revealed their cultural debts to other, sometimes distant, peoples. Today, modern potters, including the Navajo, offer the collector a treasure trove of Southwest Native American history and artisanship that emerged largely from prehistoric Puebloan village farming communities.
With the passage of centuries and the geographic expansion of the technology, southwest Native American Indian Pottery has risen to the level of art.