The beauty and elegance of Samuel Manymules’ pottery goes far beyond the utilitarian ceramics common to the Navajo. The term "Fine Art" is far more appropriate when describing Samuel’s creations. Samuel uses traditional clay, firing, and sealing techniques but the end result is far away and above the average potter. Through his rare talent and incredibly high standards of creativity, Samuel Manymules has established himself as one of the premier ceramic artists of the American Southwest.
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
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 scarce.
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
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.