4. Pottery and Basket Making Traditional, Its Symbolism

The art of pottery-making is a traditional one; mothers teach their daughters, even as their mothers taught them. There are no recipes for exact proportions and mixtures, no thermometer for controlling temperatures, no stencil or pattern set down upon paper for laying out the designs. The perfection of the finished work depends upon the potter's sense of rightness and the skill developed by practicing the methods of her ancestors with such variation as her own originality and ingenuity may suggest.

All the women of a pueblo community know how to make cooking vessels, at least, and in spare time they gather and prepare their raw materials, just as the Navajo woman has usually a blanket underway or the Apache a basket started. The same is true of Hopi basketry; its methods, designs, and symbolism are all a matter of memory and tradition.

From those who know most of Indian sacred and decorative symbols, we learn that two main ideas are outstanding: desire for rain and belief in the unity of all life. Charms or prayers against drought take the form of clouds, lightning, rain, etc., and those for fertility are expressed by leaves, flowers, seed pods, while fantastic birds and feathers accompany these to carry the prayers. It may be admitted that the modern craftsman is often enough ignorant of the full early significance of the motifs used, but she goes on using them because they express her idea of beauty and because she knows that always they have been used to express belief in an animate universe and with the hope of influencing the unseen powers by such recognition in art.

The modern craftsman may even tell you that the once meaningful symbols mean nothing now, and this may be true, but the medicine men and the old people still hold the traditional symbols sacred, and this reply may be the only short and polite way of evading the troublesome stranger to whom any real explanation would be difficult and who would quite likely run away in the middle of the patient explanation to look at something else. Only those whose friendship and understanding have been tested will be likely to be told of that which is sacred lore. However, if the tourist insists upon having a story with his basket or pottery and the seller realizes that it's a story or no sale, he will glibly supply a story, be he Indian or white, both story and basket being made for tourist consumption.

To the old time Indian everything had a being or spirit of its own, and there was an actual feeling of sympathy for the basket or pot that passed into the hands of unsympathetic foreigners, especially if the object were ceremonial. The old pottery maker never speaks in a loud tone while firing her ware and often sings softly for fear the new being or spirit of the pot will become agitated and break the pot in trying to escape. Nampeo, the venerable Tewa potter, is said to talk to the spirits of her pots while firing them, adjuring them to be docile and not break her handiwork by trying to escape. But making things to sell is different—how could it be otherwise?

In one generation Indian craftsmen have come to be of two classes, those who make quantities of stuff for sale and those few who become real artists, ambitious to save from oblivion the significance and idealism of the old art that was done for the glory of the gods. Indian art may survive with proper encouragement, but it must come now; after a while will be too late.

A notably fine example of such encouragement is the work of Mary Russell F. Colton of Flagstaff, Arizona, in the Hopi Craftsman Exhibition held annually at the Northern Arizona Museum of which she is art curator. At the 1931 Exhibition, 142 native Hopi sent in 390 objects. Over $1500 worth of material was sold and $200 awarded in prizes. The attendance total of visitors was 1,642. From this exhibit a representative collection of Hopi Art was assembled for the Exposition of Indian Tribal Arts at the Grand Central Galleries, New York City, in December of the same year. A gratifying feature of these annual exhibits is the fact that groups of Hopi come in from their reservation 100 miles away and modestly but happily move about examining and enjoying these lovely samples of their own best work and that of their neighbors; and they are quick to observe that it is the really excellent work that gets the blue ribbon, the cash prize, and the best sale.

Dr. Fewkes points out that while men invented and passed on the mythology of the tribe, women wrote it down in symbols on their handicrafts which became the traditional heritage of all.

The sand paintings made for special ceremonies on the floors of the various kivas, in front of the altars, are likewise designs carried only in the memory of the officiating priest and derived from the clan traditions. All masks and ceremonial costumes are strictly prescribed by tradition. The corn symbol is used on everything. Corn has always been the bread of life to the Hopi, but it has been more than food, it has been bound up by symbolism with his ideas of all fertility and beneficence. Hopi myths and rituals recognize the dependence of their whole culture on corn. They speak of corn as their mother. The chief of a religious fraternity cherishes as his symbol of high authority an ear of corn in appropriate wrappings said to have belonged to the society when it emerged from the underworld. The baby, when twenty days old, is dedicated to the sun and has an ear of corn tied to its breast.


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