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Knowledge about Native Americans

Navajo Pottery

Navajo Pottery

Navajo Pottery by Kevin and Jolinda Black

The largest Indian group, with a population of two hundred thousand, is the Navajo Nation, which is located on the Navajo reservation that is fourteen million acres of plateau stretching from northeastern Arizona and northwestern New Mexico into southeastern Utah. The Navajo reservation is surrounded by four sacred mountains, which are Blanca Peak, Mount Taylor, the San Francisco Peaks, and Mount Hesperus. Located in the center of the Navajo Nation is the Hopi Nation, and the differences between the Hopi and the Navajo tribes have caused political and social conflicts.

Traditional Navajos live in round log-and-clay hogans or have "summer houses", which are made of branches and twigs. These habitations do not have electricity or running water, and most dwellings are built in proximity to Chinle and Canyon de Chelly. Clans are very important in Navajo life, and influence pottery designs. Tuba City, which is the Navajo tribal headquarters on the east side of the Grand Canyon, and the springs located in the south, have an ample clay supply for potters to collect.

Old Navajo Pottery

Old Navajo Pottery dating from around 1700 AD

Navajo Pottery Sherds

Navajo Pottery sherds dating from around 1700 AD. Photo by Jonathan Till.

Although Navajo women have been making pottery for hundreds of years for utilitarian and ceremonial use, they were not traditionally known as artistic potters. Most pottery was made to carry water or food, and was decorated only lightly with some simple symbols or surface textures. The photos to the left show a decorative ridge running around the top with some etching. This is a common motif for the original Navajo pottery and can help with identifying small pot sherds. With the introduction of the railroad across the United States, pottery and other artworks were created and designed for souvenirs. Navajos became renowned for weaving, silversmithing and jewelry making, basketry, and painting. Although Hopi pottery was in high demand for many years, it wasn't until a museum curator discovered Rose Williams, who was the first traditional Navajo artist to break out in the 1950s that Navajo pottery received the recognition it deserved.

Navajo potters often mix different types of clay together to obtain a variety of physical, chemical, and aesthetic qualities. The Navajos do not temper their clay with ground up old pot shards, which lessens the breakage of pots during firing. They believe the old pottery shards belonged to their forefathers, the Anasazi, and should remain in the ground.

Today, Navajo pottery is fired one pot at a time in an open pit outdoors with juniper wood both under and over the pot for several hours. Unlike other kinds of Indian pottery, Navajo pottery involves the application of a coat of hot melted pitch from a pinon tree to a pot before it is cooled. Most pottery was undecorated for centuries, except for textures that occurred in the fabrication, or the application of small symbols made of the same clay. The conservative nature of the pots may be attributed to the medicine men that imposed restrictive behavior regulations upon the women, who were making pottery.

The Navajo tradition of illustrative symbolic sand paintings for healing ceremonies has inspired many artists; however, many Navajo artists find it difficult to use these sacred symbols in their work due to feelings of respect for their ancestors. For example, Lorraine Williams leaves a portion of her designs unfinished to let spirits escape.