Lifeblood for Pueblo People

Lifeblood for Pueblo People  by Rosemary McKittrick

Photo courtesy if Skinner Auctioneers.

Grinding the clay is the hardest part.  It’s stone really, and then breaking up the old shards for temper.  It has to be right, or the clay collapses—too soft, or stiffens—too hard, said 20th century Acoma potter Rose Chino Garcia. 
— Rose Chino Garcia, Acoma Potter

Clay is alive for the Pueblo people.  Not only have their traditional pots and jars held water and seeds, they also possess an intense spirituality.  Clay for the Natives is the same substance out of which the gods created human beings.        

Throughout history potters have prayed to their clay and spoken softly around it to keep their voices from intruding into their creations.  Depending on the soil and individual technique, most pueblos developed their own distinct styles.

"Grinding the clay is the hardest part. It's stone really, and then breaking up the old shards for temper.  It has to be right, or the clay collapses--too soft, or stiffens--too hard, said 20th century Acoma potter Rose Chino Garcia. 

Much of the slate-like clay used in traditional Acoma pottery came from the hills surrounding the Pueblo.  During the 17th century, potters developed the matte-painted polychrome style, which continues today.

Acoma pueblo sits on top of a mesa rising 357 feet above the plains in New Mexico.  Throughout history its sheer cliffs protected the Anasazi from their enemies, provided pools of cool water to drink and a resting place to grow life sustaining corn. 

It’s one of the oldest continuously inhabited villages in North America.  The people in Acoma live in terraced adobe houses some of which are three stories high.  Rectangular kivas used for meeting and ceremonies lie between buildings.   

A 65 mile drive west of Albuquerque-- Acoma is a journey back in time. 

A defensive tour de force, safety allowed the pueblo to survive.  Acoma may have been inhabited as early as 1100 A.D.  Not much has changed over time. 

“The village was very strong,” wrote Castaneda de Najera, a Spanish explorer who stumbled upon Acoma around 1540.  “It was up on a rock out of reach, having steep sides in every direction.”

With no electricity, water or sewer on the mesa most of the tribe lives in housing down below. They come in the summer, often for ceremonies.

Windy, stark and other-worldly, Acoma offers its visitors 360 degree views of the landscape surrounding it.

It’s a matriarchal society.  The structures on the mesa get passed on from mother to daughter and are owned by the women.  The potters’ knowledge gets passed on from generation to generation too. 

Fired at high temperatures traditional Acoma pottery is strong.  Not only strong, each piece is unique.  Shards are all we know about most ancient potters.  Other pots managed to survive unbroken. 

Designs seen on them include polychrome parrots or macaws, deer, spirals, clouds, dragonflies, butterflies and geometric shapes.  Until about 100 years ago pottery was primarily a household trade.  Pots were used for rituals, cooking, storing food, and as water jugs.  They were also traded, sold, and given as gifts.  

Their form, design and technical mastery have made them works of art today.

On Sept. 25, Skinner Auctioneers offered a selection of pueblo pottery and artifacts in its American Indian & Tribal Art sale in Marlborough, Mass.  

Pueblo Artifacts

Jars; 2; Polychrome pottery; from Acoma and Santo Domingo Pueblo; damaged; 8 ½ inches high;  $243.

Bowls; 4; pottery; Anasazi; damaged; 8 ¼ inches diameter;  $577.

Jar; Polychrome pottery; Acoma; 8 inches high;  $770.

Mugs; 3; Anasazi; black-and-white; damaged; 4 ¼ inches high;  $1,470.

Rattles; 3; Pueblo painted gourd rattles;  9 ¾ inches long;  $6,738. 


Rosemary McKittrick is a storyteller.  For 26 years she has brought the world of collecting to life in her column.  Her website is a mother lode of information about art, antiques and collectibles.  Rosemary received her education in the trenches working as a professional appraiser.

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