Authentic Native American Tribes of Arizona

The Art of Traditional Pottery Making

  • There are many well known potters from various tribes.  Most known are the pueblo people of New Mexico and Arizona.  Although the skills and experience vary greatly there are certain processes that remain the same.
  • Clay is usually dug out and comes in large chunks pickaxes and shovels are typical tools used in gathering clay.  It may take an entire day to gather enough clay to make several pieces of pottery.
  • Once the clay is gathered it must be processed.  This means the clay is pounded down to smaller chunks and soaked in water so the clay becomes the consistency of thick mud. It is then set out in the sun so most of the moisture is wicked off.  One test of readiness is that the clay will roll onto itself with very little sticking. The clay can be put in a large tub and covered to keep it moist.
  • Once the clay is ready then it can be used to make the desired pottery piece.  Traditional pottery of the pueblo people are hand shaped. Potter wheels are not used in this process.  It is typical for a potter to work on several pieces at the same time and take them through the final process altogether.
  • After the shape is complete then the piece must be allowed to dry.  It is during this process that pottery are etched. Once it is dry then the piece will need to be scraped/sanded to create a smooth surface.  After this is completed then the piece needs to be polished to create the beautiful luster. The piece is nearing its final stages. The potter will paint the pieces and the pottery paint is allowed to dry.  The pottery is now ready to fire. A fire is made and after it has died down then the pottery are added and covered. They stay in the homemade “oven” overnight.
  • The next morning they are removed from the ashes.  This is the moment of truth. To see if all your hard work has paid off.  To see if the construction of the piece was correct.  To see if you have avoided the pitfalls of pottery making.
  • Pitfalls:  You cannot allow any hand lotions, body oils or oils of ay sort to be introduced into the clay.  If at any time during the process oils are introduced into the clay the pottery will break during the firing process.  Additionally, if you allow small air pockets to form these will cause the pottery to explode during the firing process.  If you do not allow the piece to dry completely before firing cracks can appear. If your paint is old it may not adhere to the pottery.  If your “oven” is not covered properly and there is a breeze you could have smoke patterns on the pottery.
  • None of these problems can be seen during the construction process.  It is only at the very end when the final product is removed from the “oven” that all the flaws are exposed.
  • The final product is the epitome of great workmanship.


Author: Rosalie Talahongva
Tribal Affiliation: Hopi
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