Navajo Tribe

The Navajo tribe is known for their basketry, weaving, silversmithing, and jewelry-making; the women have been making pottery for hundreds of years for ceremonial and household use. Traditionally pottery was left undecorated by the Navajo. 

Navajo potters often mix several clays together, for varying physical and chemical as well as aesthetic qualities. The pots were fired and before they were cooled, a hot, melted pitch from pinyon trees would be applied to coat the pot, resulting in a glossy finish. This finish not only gave the pot a waterproof quality but also gave a distinguished look and aroma to the pot. Unlike many other tribes, Navajos do not grind up old pot shards to mix into the raw clay powder for temper, which lessens the shrinkage and breakage during firing. Navajos feel that old pottery shards belong to the Anasazi, their forefathers, and should not be removed from the ground. 

Traditional pots were otherwise undecorated for centuries, except for textures that occurred in the fabrication, or the application of small symbols made of the same clay. Navajo tribal society was tightly controlled, and medicine men imposed restrictive behavior regulations upon the women making pottery. Possibly, the discipline imposed on Navajo women shows in the conservative nature of their pots.

Because of their geographical location, those few Navajo potters producing pottery for either ceremonial or personal use were never approached by the railroad traders. Around the 1880s, the tourist markets for Navajo blankets and jewelry were more profitable than the market for this kind of undecorated pottery. Another change happened when curators from museums nearby the Navajo noticed emerging clay artists. These artists, like Rose Williams in the 1950s, were taking traditional Navajo techniques to new levels. 

Today Navajo pots are typically fired outdoors, one at a time in an open pit, with juniper wood both under and over each pot. Because of tribal religious restrictions, many traditional Navajo potters either don't add any decorations to their pieces or they stick to pre-approved Navajo weaving patterns.


Pot - round with square mouth

Navajo: Style and Form

Traditional Navejo pottery is distinct from other Southwest pottery in a few ways. Unlike other pottery traditions Navejo vessels remained largerly undecorated for the majority of Navejo pottery tradition. As the style evolved decorations and embelshments were added but as can be seen in this collection here much of it still holds to the unemleished quality. This combined with a lower firing rate gives it a darker more burnished tint than other Southwest pottery traditions.

Works Referenced

Invaluable. (n.d.). Navajo Art: Ancient to Modern Techniques. Invaluable: In Good Taste.

Native American Pottery. (2014-2021). The Navajo Nation. Native American Pottery: Through the Eyes of the Pot.

Peterson, S. (1997). A History of American Indian Pottery: Pottery by American Indian Women. Women Artists of the American West.

Taos Trading Post. (n.d.). Native American Art: Navajo Pottery History.