Navajo woman finishing up a handmade pot.
Although Navajo women have been making pottery for hundreds of years for their own household and ceremonial use, the Navajo, unlike the Pueblo Indians, were not traditionally excellent potters. A few of them turned into artist potters when the railroad crossed America, and, like their neighbors the Hopi, sold their wares in trading posts. In the twentieth century, Navajos have also achieved renown in weaving, silver-smithing, and jewelry making, basketry, and painting, more than in any other Indian culture. Similar to their neighbors, Navajo potters mix several clays together, to achieve different physical, chemical, and aesthetic qualities. Unlike many other tribes, however, they don’t grind up old potshards to mix into the raw clay powder for temper, lessening the shrinkage and breakage during firing. Navajos believe that old potsherds belong to the Anasazi, their forefathers, and shouldn’t be removed from the ground.
Because of their unique method of creating pottery, the style of early Navajo pottery was different than pots made in other Indian villages in the United States. Fabricated in the coil and pinch manner of more ancient Native Americans, the work was bonfired, and then a special treatment was used. Before the pot had cooled, hot melted pitch from piņon trees was poured or rubbed in a thin coating over the vessel, inside and out. This unusual technique distinguished the look and aroma of Navajo pottery from all other Native American potters.
Navajo tribal society was tightly controlled, and shamans imposed restrictive behavior regulations on how the women made pottery. It’s possible that the discipline imposed on Navajo women shows in the conservative nature of their pots. In the 1880s, the railroad crossed America and the first Anglo-run trading posts came to the Navajo reservation. Use of cash money instead of the barter system brought the Indians access to Anglo cooking products made of metal and plastic, diminishing the need for utilitarian pottery and undermining native tradition. Navajo women still made pottery for ceremonial use, but the lack of production reduced the stimulus for making pottery. At the same time, while artistic pottery from the southwestern pueblos was reaching a high degree of popularity, traders rejected the traditional Navajo pottery, calling the dark-brown, pitch-coated, utilitarian wares “mud pots.” Tourist markets for Navajo blankets and jewelry were more profitable than the market for this kind of pottery.
What changed the market for Navajo pottery, were individual Navajo artists, who took the Navajo techniques to new levels. Rose Williams was the first traditional Navajo potter to break into the museum markets and Native American art fairs in the 1950s. She built cylindrical jars two to three feet tall, a quite exceptional size for handmade bonfired pottery. Her daughter, Alice Cling, was one of the first Navajos to sign a pot. Today Navajo pots are still fired outdoors, one pot at a time in an open pit, with juniper wood both under and over the pot. The fires are allowed to burn hard for several hours. The pitch for coating the pots is gathered by children or families from piņon trees. The process is quite demanding. The potter and his helpers must dig the clay, grinding it to powder, coiling and pinching the clay into shape, gathering wood for the fire, tending the fire, and applying the hot liquid sap to the finished pot.
The Navajo tradition of making illustrative symbolic sand paintings for healing ceremonies has given inspiration to some pottery decorations, although it’s against traditional rules to use them. Because of reverence for ancestral spirits, it’s difficult for Navajos to use sacred symbols for design. Nevertheless, tribal background is inevitably an important decorative resource. The Yei bichai, by Lorraine Williams, shown in the jar below, represents the mythical Holy People, and is a prominent theme in Navajo art. As shown in the photo, she deliberately leaves a portion of the design unfinished so the Yei spirit can escape.