Cultural Heritage of Southwest Native American Pottery: Storytelling

Pottery Making

The techniques used for making Pueblo pottery trace back some 1,500 years, most likely brought to the area from Mexico. All pottery made in the regions highlighted in this exhibit are hand-coiled; pottery wheels, electric or kick, are not used in the pottery making processes.

Clay and any paints used to color the pottery are locally sourced. Some potters use their own secret resevoirs; others are more communally inclined. 

Since clay and dyes are locally sourced, colors of clay and type of paint (called slip) vary from tribe to tribe. In this collection, you will note that deep reds, oranges, yellow, brown, and black are represented; some of this is because of the clay, though often the bright colors are from the colored slips used to create polychrome designs.

Blackware is especially distinctive and attributed to the San Ildefonso and Santa Clara Pueblos. Below, you can view a video of acclaimed San Ildefonso Pueblo potter Maria Martinez, who, along with her husband, Julian, revived blackware techniques. While there are no pieces by Maria or Julian Martinez in the St. Catherine Fine Art collection, their long lasting influence on local pottery making cannot be understated.

From Start to Finish

Pottery making begins with sourcing the clay, then turning it into a powder between two stones, mano and metate.

Example of a mano and metate.

(Image source:

Then the clay is mixed with ash and/or powder from other broken pottery to increase its strength and keep the pot from cracking. Finally, the clay is moistened and kneaded and made ready to take shape.

For anyone who has made pottery, you know that hand-coiling takes patience and time. Once the layers are formed coil by coil, gourd scrapers (which are similar to a rib tool) are used to scrape off rough edges and clean and shape the pot on outside and inside. Then the pot is completely dried, sanded, and often slipped -- the process of adding colored, watered-down clay to the surface of the pot. To create the polished look you might spy in this collection, round stones are used on the wet surface of the clay, and this can be done whether the pot has been slipped or left bare.

While each tribe may use very similar techniques, it's important to note that each artist and/or tribe will use distinctive colors, motifs, and patterns, often iterating on ancient designs or techniques to carry on traditions. Pottery is a story of process and creation.

Native American Pottery Making c1920-1949 (video has no sound)


Wedding Pot

Santa Clara Pueblo

Style and Form

While there are overall similarities each tribe has a unique technique of style and form distinct to themselves. These distinct styles allow archeologists to date periods of prosperity and trade in tribal history based on the style how far it traveled and how much variation exists. Pottery in its many iterations and forms helps tell the story of the Native American peoples.

One of the more common forms that traditional Southwest pottery can take is that of the wedding vase. A jar or pot with two spouts is considered a wedding vase which is an element of Pueblo, Hopi and Navajo wedding ceremonies. With variations present from tribe to tribe, the general ceremony is as follows. The vase is created by the parents of the groom to be and once it has been completed the families of the bride and groom gather to celebrate and so that the future couple can receive advice from previous generations. After which the future newlyweds drink from the vase one from each spout, a herbal tea, nectar created by the medicine man, or holy water is used depending on the tribe and family traditions. The vase is then turned and the couple drinks from the opposite spout. At the end of the wedding itself, the vase is given to the new couple and treasured as a reminder and keepsake to the new union.

For more information on the styles and forms present in this exhibit, please visit the individual tribal pages (Hopi, Navajo, Pueblo).

Works Referenced

AAA Native Arts. (n.d). Pueblo Wedding Vase Ceremony.

ATADA. (n.d). Native American Indian Pottery. CulturalPatina.

Palace of the Governors Photo Archives. (2016, January 19). Native American pottery making c1920-1949 [Video]. YouTube. 

Tibbel, D. (1990). Nampeyo and the Sikyatki Revival: Creating a Legend with Hopi Ceramics. The University of British Columbia.

Ward, A. (2019, August 7). How Pueblo Pottery is Made, Discover the Ancient Pueblos Traditions. Ancient Pottery.

The Storytellers of the Southwest