are relatively recent arrivals to the Southwest. They probably migrated from the
north in the 16th Century thereby becoming a part of the Pueblo IV period. The
Navajo have made pottery since their arrival; possibly they brought pottery with
them during their southern migration. They made a plain and decorated pottery.
The plain being considered the older style. After the railroad's arrival to the
Southwest in the 1880's, the Navajos reduced pottery production with the availability
of commercially made utility ware at trading posts. Today's Navajo pottery differs
little from the old styles. It is often pear-shaped, conically bottomed, and colored
in a reddish brown. It is serviceable and made waterproof by coating with resin
from pinon pine. Once the resin permeates the clay, the pot can be placed in hot
coals with no loss of the resin or its sealing properties. Decorations are simple
beading or applique. If the pot has the clay beads or fillets, a space or spirit
break is included. It might appear as if the potter forgot to include one fillet.
Anasazi culture potshards are ground and used as a tempering agent. the pot is
built by coiling, shaped by hand with the aid of a corn cob and fired in an open
pit. Wedding vases and other vase styles are common. The Navajo has been known
to make large jars but more commonly the pots are under 12 inches in height. The
large jars are considered rare. The Navajo people are probably the largest consumers
of Navajo pottery. Therefore the Navajo potter makes pottery primarily for the
Navajo trade. There is little collector demand at the present for the Navajo pottery.
This is somewhat unfortunate as it represents a definite style and is traditional
in all aspects. Recently, however, several Navajo potters have been exhibiting
and marketing pottery with various designs. Appliqued decorations representing
yucca, cactus, horned toads, animals, humans, and flowers are appearing on their
modern pottery. These have more appeal to collectors.
Alice Williams, Silas Claw, Stella Claw, Datso Bitsi,
and the Tso family are active Navajo potters. They use their pottery for cooking,
ceremonies, pipes, and drums, and do not consider it an art form. Public acceptance
is not a motivation; in fact, the Navajo makes every effort to maintain privacy
and anonymity. However, the Navajo are a large group and that leaves ample opportunity
for exception to this social custom. Pg. 182
American Indian Pottery; 1984, John W. Barry.
Unlike most of the neighboring Indian tribes, the Navaho
are not conspicuous as potters and make a very rude and inartistic kind of pottery,
which in every respect is vastly inferior to that of the Pueblo. Their traditions,
however, point to a time in which pottery is said to have been in nowise inferior
to that of the Pueblo with whom they lived. With the exception of cooking pots
other fabrics, such as waterpots, waterbags or bottles, bowls and earthen spoons
or dippers, were all beautifully decorated with figures of birds, rainbows,
deer, antelope, rabbits, ducks, cloud effect (kos ishchin), or any figure not
tabooed, as snakes, lightning, bear, badger, hawks, and the divinities.
As in the decoration of the basket, so also the decorative
line encircling the body of the pot was left open for the reason that the potter,
like the basket weaver, supposedly encircled herself with this decoration and,
lest she trifle with her life, must not close this circle about her, but leave
an exit for herself. The early waterpots were shaped much like the wicker bottle,
with two loops or eyelets on the sides, and were similarly carried on the back.
One side of the rounded body of the pot was made flat so that in carrying it
might rest better. These waterpots have now entirely disappeared, though the
legends speak of the white, blue, yellow and dark waterpots for conveying the
sacred waters of the cardinal points.
The water bottle was provided with a loop, or finger
handle, near the neck, so that it might be conveniently grasped in pouring out
its contents. They were shaped much like an ordinary pitcher, omitting the spout
and handle, and with a narrower neck than that of the waterpot. Later they were
entirely abandoned and displaced by bottles purchased from the Hopi and other
tribes whose fabrics, though slightly differing from the Navaho ware, were found
just as serviceable. Of these many were provided with an additional loop near
the bottom of the bottle so that it might easily be suspended from a cord and
carried in traveling. Some maintain that the Navaho never made water bottles
but always purchased them from the Pueblo. Early history and tradition, however,
discredit this strongly, though at present Navaho made water bottles are very
Earthen spoons or dippers were in shape like the gourd
ladle, and were, like it, used for the purpose of dipping out liquids. The bowl
would seem to have been a substitute for the basket at the home. Its name, letsa',
earthen basket, indicates both its shape and purpose. While all of these were
ornamented with beautiful figures, the asa', pot, was completely devoid of ornamentation
since it was used for cooking purposes, and in the preparation and boiling of
dyes or medicines. No particular care was taken to form them shapely, and though
made in different sizes, all were made after the same pattern with rounded bottoms,
a hardly perceptible neck, and a slightly flaring rim. A serpentine line, or
a few scallops along the outside rim, in addition to depressions made into the
body of the pot with the finger or a stick, were the only decorative features
about these pots, which in substance remain unchanged to this day.
The crucibles now in use by the silversmiths of the tribe
are in effect cooking pots in miniature, and are provided with one to three
spouts at the rim for pouring the molten silver into the matrix. The ceremonial
pipes are conical in shape, and stemless, as the smoke is drawn through a small
hole provided in the bottom of the pipe. This comparatively small variety of
pottery made by the Navaho, and their apparent indifference to the art, finds
a ready explanation in the great facility with which more shapely and serviceable
pottery could be obtained from the neighboring Pueblo Indians. More recently,
too, brass, tin and enameled wares promptly found favor with them as far superior
to, and less difficult to acquire, than the native or extra-tribal pottery,
so that comparatively little earthenware is used at present.
Pottery making is a woman's industry, and to-day the
Navaho potter may still be found among the older women of the tribe. As the
molding and drying process require a large amount of attention and care some
unoccupied hogan, or other secluded place, is selected, where the potter might
be undisturbed. As a material for most earthenware, a very sticky mud and white
clay are used, which may be found almost everywhere, while for the pots a bluish
clay, which in certain localities may easily be dug out, is preferred, and from
its use in making pots is known as pot material. Small pieces of broken pottery,
with which the Navaho country is in places fairly strewn, are crushed and ground
to a fine sand, and added to the clay. The whole is then mixed with water and
thoroughly stirred until a stiff mud of equal consistency throughout is obtained.
A lump of this mud is then taken between the hands and rolled out into long,
slender pieces, or ropes; this done, a flat, round cake of the desired circumference
is made of a lump of the mud, and serves as the bottom of the pot around which
one of the rolls of mud is wound and made fast by pressing and gently kneading
with the fingers. A vessel containing water is kept near by into which the fingers
are occasionally dipped to prevent the mud from clinging to them, as also to
prevent the finished work from drying too rapidly. Another roll is added and
fastened in the same way, by which process the potter is enabled to give the
pot the desired shape and size.
The molding completed, the whole is then thoroughly smoothened
by rubbing the exterior with a corncob, while the back of a gourd dipper is
used in smoothening the interior surface of the pot. When still moist small
indentations are made in the body of the pot with the thumb or a small stick,
and such scallops made around the rim as strike the fancy of the potter, who
at times substitutes a narrow serpentine line made of thin strips of mud. No
other decoration is added. The whole is then covered with a coating of gum to
further its density, after which the pot is placed over a slow fire, made of
sheep or cow dung, and allowed to remain there for several hours until thoroughly
baked, after which it is ready for use.
After baking, the pottery (excepting cooking utensils)
was decorated with colored figures, the color being applied with a brush of
yucca fiber, and prepared from black, red, yellow and white clays or earths,
mixed with water. This, however, has long since been discontinued as too tedious.
The cooking pot is still largely in use, both for domestic and ceremonial purposes.
In the well known war dance the pot is quickly converted into a drum by stretching
a piece of goat-, sheep- or buckskin across the mouth of the pot and securing
it just below the flaring rim. This is tapped with a small round stick producing
a dull sound which is kept up incessantly during the entire dance The earthen
pot is also required in the preparation of medicines productive of emesis in
the course of some ceremonies. Pgs. 285-289
An Ethnologic Dictionary of the Navajo Language; 1910,
The Franciscan Fathers.
The underlying explanation is that the harmful sounds
of the slain monsters were beaten into the earth and the War Ceremony compensates
the earth for the evils left over from prehistoric times. To make it successful,
the enemy is sung and beaten into the earth. Beating the pot drum is beating
the face of the enemy. With each beat of the stick on the pot drum the minds
of enemy ghosts are drawn down toward the earth.
When the pot drum was prepared for the War Ceremony, the jewels stood for the
'floor of the drum's home,' into which the sounds were pounded.