Understanding The Origins – Pueblo and Navajo Guide

Acoma Pueblo is best known for its excellent thin-walled pottery with colorful geometric designs.  Acoma potters have produced works in this instantly recognizable style for centuries. The transcontinental railroad’s stop at Laguna Pueblo provided late historic-era Acoma potters a venue at which to sell directly to tourists.  Some Acoma artists of today have chosen modern tools like molds, kilns, and commercial clay, but many continue to work using traditional methods and materials of their ancestors. Many Acoma potters create works that include or are influenced by prehistoric Mimbres and Tularosa designs.

Cochiti Pueblo is the birthplace of the Storyteller figurine, which was created in 1964 by potter Helen Cordero.  Storytellers are seated human figures made of clay, which are covered with or surrounded by small clay children. The Storyteller evolved from Cochiti’s long-standing tradition of pottery figurine creation. Cochiti artists also produce beautiful drums and exquisite jewelry.

The Diné of the Navajo Nation have a rich history of artistic creation.  Most collected is their jewelry, which is most often made of silver and turquoise.  Their textiles, which have been collected enthusiastically for around 150 years, are regarded as some of the finest artworks of the Southwest.  Interestingly, the Diné people might have learned the art of weaving from the Pueblo Indian people, who are not frequently mentioned in discussions of Native textile creation.  The Diné people also produce wonderful works on paper. This began in the early 1900s and continues today. Harrison Begay, Quincy Tahoma, and Narciso Abeyta are among the most notable early Diné painters. The Diné people’s baskets are also very popular with collectors.

Hopi Pueblo is located within the Navajo Reservation in Arizona and is one of the most artistically distinct Pueblo groups.  Their katsina dolls—cottonwood root carvings created in the likenesses of their religion’s spirit beings—are probably their most distinct contributions to the world of Southwestern art.  The Hopi and Hopi-Tewa pottery tradition has existed for centuries and was introduced to a wide audience in the early 1900s via the works of legendary artist Nampeyo of Hano. Hopi and Hopi-Tewa artists create wonderful, colorful pottery with striking designs that are strongly influenced by ancestral imagery.  A great many notable painters and innovative jewelers emerged from Hopi during the early- and mid-1900s.

Early Isleta Pueblo potters created simple, undecorated, utilitarian wares.  In 1879, a group of Laguna families moved to Isleta and settled into a village they name Oraibi.  They brought with them Laguna’s painted polychrome pottery style, and techniques that were previously unfamiliar to Isleta potters.  These techniques—using potsherds as a tempering agent, most notably—allowed Isleta potters to improve their work. Isleta artists of today continue to create polychrome pottery.

Fruitful excavations have proven that 17th-century Jemez Pueblo potters productively created black-on-white pottery.  Production declined almost entirely during the Spanish Reconquest, and pottery had to be imported from Zia and Santa Ana Pueblos.  A brief revival, led by two Zia potters who married into Jemez families, began in 1925 but did not last long. Today, several Jemez artists create polychrome pottery and storyteller figurines.

Laguna Pueblo is known for its gorgeous, thin-walled polychrome pottery with precise geometric designs.  Stylistically, it’s very similar to the pottery of Acoma Pueblo. Some experts claim to be able to distinguish the two using certain designs, while others claim that the two pueblos’ works cannot be distinguished with certainty.  The transcontinental railroad’s Laguna stop was a popular sales venue for Acoma potters, too, which further complicates the confusion surrounding the origins of the wonderful pottery of these two pueblos. In the mid-1900s, pottery production all but ceased because Laguna’s uranium mines began employing many of its residents.  Evelyn Cheromiah was instrumental in the continuation of Laguna’s pottery tradition, teaching her daughters and other residents traditional pottery making methods.

Nambe Pueblo is best known for its micaceous pottery, which has been produced for centuries.  Master potter Lonnie Vigil was instrumental in the revival of this style and continues producing it successfully today.

Ohkay Owingeh (formerly San Juan Pueblo) has contributions to the world of Pueblo Indian art are simple but significant: polished blackware and redware.  The utilitarian wares produced at Ohkay Owingeh during the 1800s are sought by today’s collectors because of their strong, simple beauty and appealing shapes.  Pottery making at Ohkay Owingeh almost died out around 1900, and was revived briefly around 1935, but of a different style.

Potters at the small nation of Picuris Pueblo produce pottery that is like that which is produced by Taos Pueblo artists—simple, micaceous wares.  There are very few potters at Picuris today.

The relatively small pueblo of San Ildefonso is responsible for an incredible amount of artistic creation and innovation.  Black-on-Black pottery, perfected and made famous by Maria Martinez and her large family, is one of the most widely celebrated Native American art forms.  These elegantly stone-polished, intricately decorated pots are admired and collected by individuals and institutions around the world. Lesser known but equally important are San Ildefonso’s amazing historic pots, which bear little resemblance to contemporary blackware despite being made of the same materials.  San Ildefonso is also believed to be the birthplace of Pueblo Indian painting. The young artists that comprised the “San Ildefonso Self-Taught” group, whose efforts were encouraged by elementary school teacher Esther Hoyt, are believed to have been painting as early as 1900.

Santa Ana Pueblo potters of the historic era produced functional polychrome pottery which is not often available on the market today.  Production decreased significantly around 1880, when pots, pans and buckets became available. The first of three minor revivals occurred around 1940.  Today, there are only a few active Santa Ana potters.

Santa Clara Pueblo has produced and continues to produce an incredible amount of excellent artwork.  Its stone-polished blackware, which is carved rather than painted, is its most frequently collected style.  The Tafoya family—Sara Fina and Margaret, most notably—is responsible for the perfection and proliferation of this style.  Today, their many descendants and other unrelated Santa Clara artists continue creating and selling carved black and red pottery.  Early Pueblo painter Pablita Velarde and her daughter Helen Hardin were from Santa Clara. These innovative women rank among the most important figures in the history of Native American art.

The large pueblo of KEWA, formerly Santo Domingo Pueblo is one of the most conservative in terms of customs and culture.  It is known for its polychrome pottery.  The simple, elegant designs preferred by Santo Domingo potters are easily recognizable to anyone with an interest in Pueblo pottery. Santo Domingo’s wonderful historic-era dough bowls are highly sought after by today’s collectors.

Taos Pueblo artists create pottery using micaceous clay, which makes it unlike that of any Pueblo other than Picuris and Nambe.  While there are a few potters creating works for sale, there is little known production of pottery for household use. Taos Pueblo artists also work with animal skins to create drums, moccasins, and boots.  

Tesuque Pueblo no longer makes much traditional pottery perhaps because of its proximity to Santa Fe.  Its most widely circulated art form is the Rain God figurine.  These clay figurines, made in the likeness of a nondescript entity and sold in large quantities in the late 1800s and early 1900s, remain very popular with today’s collectors.  While these curio items are notable, Tesuque’s exquisitely painted functional vessels are generally regarded as its most significant artworks.

Zia Pueblo is responsible for producing a great deal of incredible historic pottery. Their outstanding design work, which has evolved quite a bit over the years, is often immediately recognizable as that of Zia Pueblo.  These widely varied designs include excellent geometric patterns, the “Zia Bird” and the sun symbol that graces the New Mexico state flag. Prior to 1900, Zia potters favored very intricate designs. After 1900, their designs simplified and focused mostly on floral elements and the “Zia Bird”.  This sharp stylistic turn was made to appeal to wider audiences. Like Santo Domingo Pueblo, Zia Pueblo potters produced many large dough bowls along with its water and storage jars.

Zuni Pueblo 
varies greatly from that of the other pueblo groups and is often referred to as a “material record of the past.”  Zuni artists create fetish carvings and mosaic inlay jewelry pieces that are collected all around the Southwest. Their amazing historic water jars are different in form and design from those of any of the other pueblos.  Zuni is the only New Mexico pueblo that permits the sale of Katsina doll carvings. These carvings, which are often adorned with fabric or animal skin clothing, are very different from those of the Hopi people.