The Carolina coast was the site of the earliest evidence of pottery making in North America, with pieces dated 4,500 BC and tempered with Spanish moss.
In 1540, when Hernando De Soto traveled through the Carolinas, the Catawba Indian Nation controlled 55,000 square miles of land including portions of North Carolina and Virginia, and most of South Carolina. The Catawba Nation has maintained the longest pottery making tradition in North America and was instrumental in keeping the Cherokee pottery making tradition viable.
The Catawba, who eluded forced removal to Oklahoma by the US Government during the 1830s, joined with their former enemies, the hold-out Cherokees, hiding in the hills, in the struggle to remain on their homelands. But by 1847 most of the Catawba left the Cherokee and returned to their original base in South Carolina (the 1760 treaty of Pine Hill and 1763 treaty of Augusta had established a fifteen mile square reservation for them along the Catawba River). Before they departed, they left behind a permanent influence on Cherokee pottery making.
“The Catawba and Cherokee pottery families intermarried,” says Michael Simpson, author of Making Native American Pottery. “A cross-fertilization of methods took place, with the final result being that the Cherokee adopted the Catawba method of firing in an open pit, abandoning forever the traditional mound firing method, which has been nearly forgotten in modern times.”
Within both traditional Catawba and Cherokee culture, women were the potters, though that gender barrier was broken during the 20th century.
After pulverizing dried clay and mixing it with water, Cherokee craftswomen molded and coiled their earthen vessels. The coil building method more easily accommodated the production of large storage pieces.
Cherokee potters often used carved wooden paddles to imprint designs — zigzag, crosshatch, feather and figure motifs—and smooth the surfaces to make them waterproof. Partly dry pottery may be burnished with a polishing stone to achieve its characteristic satin patina. Some pieces are deeply carved, some painted with slip (a liquid form of clay that may have color additives).
If clay preparation is not done correctly, or the pots are constructed incorrectly, they will crack upon simple drying. If stone polishing takes place at the wrong drying stage, or the friction of polishing is allowed to overheat and hence dry out the still damp clay, the pots will be rough- sanded, rather than smooth-polished.
The stone polishing procedure is a method that smooths by compressing the clay particles, not by sanding it, hence contributing to its strength, rather than weakening it.
The work is unglazed, and is fired in pits of burning bark and native woods, the subtle tones of red, cream, and soft grey to deep black determined by the kind of wood used in the fires. To further waterproof the insides, corncobs and bran were thrown into the fires while the pots hardened.
The vast tourist market in the North Carolina mountains that opened starting in the 1920s provided an important source of income for the Cherokee potters. Traditional wares were being produced in very small quantities, but pottery making was maintained through the creation of small decorative ware for sale.
The well known Cherokee potter Cora Wahnetah (b. 1907), whose work is shown here, tapped into that outside market starting in the 1940s. As a young girl, she had learned pottery making from her mother, in the traditional Cherokee manner: first forming the very simplest type of pot (pinched); next, the slab pot, and finally the coiled pot.
Wahnetah’s work varies from traditional pieces– pit-fired, incised pots–which would have been used in ceremonies by her ancestors, to contemporary pieces. Her pieces are owned by the Department of the Interior and are on permanent display at Qualla Arts and Crafts Mutual in Cherokee, NC.
sources: Catawba Indian Pottery: The Survival of a Folk Tradition; Thomas John Blumer; Univ of Alabama Press, 2004
Making Native American Pottery, Michael Simpson, Naturegraph Publishers, Happy Camp, CA, 1991