This Late 19th Century San Juan Pueblo jar is the most valuable piece in my collection for two reasons. Not only was it is an actual artifact used by Native Americans, it is one of a kind. Unlike most Native American pottery, including some of my own pieces, it was not designed by native artisans for the market. The same patterns, it will noted in my Acoma piece, though showing variations, were used again and again, dating back to pre-contact times. Except for the manufacture of other dissimilar black pots and jars, however, the San Juan jar’s simple design was not consciously duplicated. It is black and round—period. The only pattern would be its shape, which is shared by cultures throughout the world. It needed no special designs. It was, as a utilitarian object, intended for meals or holding food stuffs. Had it broken, it would have been discarded like all cooking ware, along with all the other potsherds and kitchen-middens surrounding the San Juan village. Perhaps a tourist or ethnologist picked it up and sold it later to a shopkeeper. Of course there is no record of the sale, as there might be for living artisans. It is, at the writing of this article, over a hundred years old, and its maker left no signature or date, only his or her excellent work. For coiled ware, it is nearly perfectly formed, and its rare simplicity, which is seen in other 19th century San Juan pots was copied by later artisans, such as the subsequent Santa Clara blackware on my list. The important difference, of course, which is not a slight upon famed Santa Clara artist Legoria Tafoya, is that it was not produced in a pottery shop nor consciously intended for the market. Thus it is more than a piece of art; it is an artifact and object of study, with a history very similar to jars studied by archeologists and ethnologists, many of which sit on the shelves of museums or are illustrated in anthropology and history books. This makes it that much more precious to me, since it more truthfully represents an important Pueblo people. The Native American who produced this ware lived in the nineteenth century and was still insulated in his or her culture. Traditionally, pottery-makers made their pieces for religious and utilitarian use, not for financial gain. No one can blame Navajo jewelers and weavers and Pueblo potters for selling technically authentic merchandise, but what makes such ware genuine and artifacts are the intentions of the artist and craftsman. Was it used in a religious ceremony or, more importantly, used in common every use? Most Native American art and craft in stores now are cheap facsimiles, many of them are mass produced, but, alas, even authentic ware is quite often not genuine Native American art and craft.
Europeans first made contact with the San Juan people in 1541 during Coronado's expedition into the Southwest. In 1598 Juan de Oñate, who first colonized New Mexico, established his headquarters in their land. Traditionally, the San Juan people (O'ke in Tewa) was the center for meetings for all the Pueblos in the eight Northern Pueblo tribes (refer to map on main page). The O’ke had become so powerful that only its leaders could declare war for the other seven tribes. Led by Popé, an exiled Sand Juan Indian, the eight Pueblo tribes of New Mexico rose up in 1680 against their Spanish overlords. Later, after the re-colonization of New Mexico by the Spanish in 1692, a mission was built at the San Juan Pueblo. Today San Juan Pueblo is the largest Tewa-speaking pueblos with a population of about 6,748 and is, in fact, headquarters for the Eight Northern Indian Pueblos Council and home to the Ohkay Owingey (San Juan Pueblo). The pueblo, typical of other villages, consists of one and two story adobe houses, rectangular kivas, and a rebuilt church, built in the tradition of the Gothic Revival, rather than old Spanish churches. The San Juan or Ohkay Owingey people have steadfastly, since their contact with the first white men to enter New Mexico, been leaders and innovators of Pueblo peoples. Like other Native Americans they have been forced to adapt somewhat to the surrounding society. The focus of artisans has changed greatly since the nineteenth century. Today the San Juan People produce stylized redware pottery, weaving, and painting, depicting cultural themes. The blackware pot shown below is listed among historic native pottery, but would not be found in current Ohkay Owingey shops.