We are all born potters. It comes naturally. Digging in the dirt is innate, core to our nature as human beings. As kids, we make mud pies and play in sand boxes without questioning why. Hands in the earth, pulling out handfuls of soil to be molded and shaped into something useful, something beautiful. We learn early on that sandy soil crumbles easier, and soil with more clay holds together, better for making things.
In a world awash with factory-made plastic everything, people are still digging clay by hand and molding it into useful art. People of the Catawba Indian Nation, living on tribal land in north central South Carolina, are digging clay in traditional locations by the Catawba River, and producing pottery on this same land the same way their ancestors have done for thousands of years. May this story of the Catawba Indian potters and their pottery inspire you to dig some clay and mold it into something special.
In the Catawba language, “Yeh is wah h’reh” is believed to have meant “people of the river.” With the passing of the last native speaker of Catawba in the mid-1900’s, the true name of the Catawba may have passed. Catawba is believed to have been derived from the Choctaw Indian name for these people, “Katape.”There are more than 2,000 residents of Lancaster County who are officially registered with the Catawba Nation, with an estimated 300 of these living on tribal land and the remainder living nearby.
Catawba potters are unique in several ways. They mine their clay locally. They coil or mold the clay into shape instead of spinning or “throwing” it on a wheel. They bake their pieces directly in the hot coals of wood fires instead of in kilns. And they are the only tribe east of the Mississippi still making pottery with the same style and methods developed long ago by their ancestors. They have been trading pottery in South Carolina with settlers of European descent for many generations. Pottery is a family effort. The men traditionally dig the clay, sometimes with women accompanying them, and the men also process the clay. Women have been the primary potters, though more men have developed this skill in recent years, and it is often the children who rub the pieces to add shine.
The last piece Earl Robbins made before he died was a huge snake bowl. It took over a year, with time out to heal an injured back, and today it resides with a fortunate buyer in Lancaster, South Carolina. Among those familiar with Catawba Indian pottery, Earl was known as the greatest male master potter in the 20th century. His pieces make up the heart of the pottery exhibit at the Catawba Cultural Center near Rock Hill, SC, and are bought and sold by collectors at increasingly high prices. An Earl Robbins bowl or pot is larger than the traditional sizes, and his work often includes important tribal symbols such as horse heads or snakes. He and his wife, Viola, were considered among the group of master potters who kept the tradition strong in the late 1900’s. Viola was a twin, and she is known for her pieces featuring two heads with braids.
Georgia Harris was considered one of the greatest Catawba potters of the 20th century, and was posthumously named a National Heritage Fellow by the National Endowment for the Arts in 1997. The award honors master folk and traditional artists who have made important contributions to the heritage of traditional arts in the United States. Ms. Harris was recognized as a keeper of traditional techniques and forms, and a teacher who influenced most of the best modern Catawba potters. Her work has been exhibited in museums including the Smithsonian in Washington, DC.
Pottery making is passed on from older to younger generations as part of the oral tradition of the Catawba people. Earl Robbins once explained, “Georgia Harris told me where I could start making something, and I did…She got me to start making pots.”
Today, tribal chief Bill Harris is practicing the craft taught to him by his late mother, Georgia. Margaret Robbins has developed her own style as a potter, with skills passed down from her late mother and father, Earl and Viola Robbins. Margaret Robbins produces pieces with her own style, including the turtle as a reference to the turtle hearts that Indian women traditionally fed to their children.
The story of Billie Ann McKellar’s indirect path to pottery making speaks to the challenges the Catawba face in continuing this tradition. Billie Ann grew up in the 1950’s and remembers her grandmother, master potter Arzada Sanders, making and selling pottery to help with the family’s income. She would sell her pieces from home, and in summer she would bring her pieces to sell at Cherokee, North Carolina, a reservation and popular tourist destination near the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Billie Ann’s mother, Katherine, married in her teen years and made pottery for money to buy food and clothing. Pottery making takes time, and doesn’t generate steady income or benefits, so she dropped the craft while raising children and working many years in a cotton mill. It was only after she retired that Katherine returned to working with clay, creating turtles and frogs that people loved and purchased as fast as she could make them.
Billie Ann missed the opportunity to learn pottery making at her mother’s side, yet she found another path to develop her skills. In 1976, Francis Wade, a state employee on the reservation, secured a cultural preservation grant that paid educational stipends for ten young Catawba to learn the craft from established potters. In addition, Billie Ann’s husband who was on disability, watched and listened to stories from Billie Ann’s mother Katherine before she passed away. Today, in her retirement, Billie has taken the time to become a more confident potter, learning her mother’s techniques as passed on by her husband. She often makes snails as a symbol of the patience it takes to make pottery well.
The Catawba Indian Nation is based on tribal land estimated to be 800 acres at the core of the historic range of Catawba settlement that once encompassed and extended beyond present-day York County. The topography is typical of the Piedmont region of the Appalachian foothills -- gently rolling, with hardwood oak forests and clay soils overlaying red shale and other sedimentary rock. It is the gradual weathering of this rock into small particles, deposited in old riverbeds and floodplains, which forms the blue and tan clays favored by Catawba potters. The reservation is situated along the Catawba River, which originates in North Carolina and flows south, eventually merging with the Santee River before it reaches its confluence with the Atlantic Ocean.
The story of the Catawba people and their vital and ancient relationship with land, and the subsequent mistreatment and breaking of that bond at the hands of settlers of European origin, is a familiar tragedy to those who have studied Native American history. Today, however, the Catawba people have secured tribal status in the eyes of the Federal and State government, and their access to remaining reservation land is secure.
The Catawba no longer own their own clay holes. The sites near the floodplain of the Catawba River where clay has been dug by many generations of potters was leased away in the 1800’s. The Catawba have used these same clay lenses and digging holes long before the concepts of property, ownership, and mining rights were introduced. As potters describe their unwritten code today, the current owner of the clay holes has allowed potters to dig clay. He has a nice collection of Catawba pottery gifted to him in thanks for this “gentleman’s agreement.” As for rights to certain spots, the potters know that if someone has been recently been digging in one area, they simply move to another location. There is plenty of clay to be shared by all.
Pottery is the link that has held the Catawba together as an ethnic group amidst all of the change of the last 300 years. As the U.S. government gradually confined the Catawba to a reservation lacking the size and productive soils of their original homeland, the tradition of pottery making became an important source of income. In the early 1900’s, some Catawba who had operated cotton farms shifted to work in textile mills. Photographs from the 1930’s show Catawba families selling pottery as a source of income for food and clothing. Potters often sold their pieces at the gate of Winthop College in Rock Hill, sometimes bartering for the students uniforms which were made of prized cloth. At times, the Catawba would also trade pottery for food.
The basic forms and techniques of Catawba pottery remain unchanged, though the interpretations may vary as the potters develop their own styles. For the past twenty years, a renewed interest in Catawba pottery has created new markets among collectors of authentic American crafts. Unique pieces crafted by master potters (particularly those who are deceased) can command significant prices.
The elder potters from the 20th century were clear that the clay must be good, and clean. They could tell by feel. Two types of clay are primarily used. “Pipe” clay is bluish grey, has a fine grain and is soft and pliable, suitable for molding into smaller objects such as pipes and small bowls that are hand-formed (“pinch pot”) or made with small molds. “Pan” clay is tan, more coarse, and is often used for larger objects made with spiraling coils. A third, bluish, gritty clay is used as a binder. More recently, potters have combined both types of clay.
Before working with the clay, the potters first must filter and blend it to the right consistency. It is dried enough to pound with a mallet or axe head, then mixed with water and strained with a wire screen to remove any unwanted debris and achieve a uniform consistency. The soupy mixture is then poured into a form wrapped with a cloth. There, the water gradually evaporates, and the potters must take care to fold the edges in and keep them from getting too dry. Once the clay has reached a workable consistency, it can be used right away or stored for longer periods and re-wet when needed. For larger pieces, grit or bluish gritty clay may be added as a stiffener to keep them from collapsing.
Catawba pottery is largely functional. It was traditionally used for cooking, food and water storage, and trade. Native people traded pottery with early European settlers in exchange for a variety of goods.
Once it is mixed and dried to the right consistency, the clay may be rewet and kneaded to work out air bubbles which can cause flaws, weak spots, and cracks. For larger pieces, the clay is rolled into coils that are then spiraled into the shape of the piece. As the piece takes shape, the potters wet and scrape the clay inside and out with a rock or shell to achieve a smooth surface (and eliminate the appearance of coils). Smaller pieces are molded by hand or in pre-formed molds. The potter generally signs each piece, often with a distinct mark. All “green” pottery is then air dried before the firing process. No glazes or paints are ever used, only rubbing with stones or shells, knives to scrape. These are often treasured family tools, and are passed on between generations. Rubbing must be done in the same direction to achieve a smooth finish. Rubbing rocks that show wear over time generate the best finish. The more worn the tools, and the more diligent the person doing the rubbing, the better the shine. Rubbing takes time and patience to produce a nice glaze, and it is often a task for children to start with in their apprenticeships.
The pottery is then heated, generally in a hot kitchen oven. At this stage, imperfections and cracks may be revealed and repaired before going into the full heat of baking fire.
The pots are then moved while still hot into an outdoor stove, such as a metal barrel with a stovepipe, lined with fire bricks, and loaded with oak wood. The oak burns down to ash, and the pots are removed while the coals are still red hot. It is said that the pots are most vulnerable when they are retrieved from the fire – if they had weak spots or are mishandled, they can crack if not treated with care. At this point, the pottery is cooled and ready to be sold. One hallmark of Catawba potters is that very few pieces remain on display in their homes. As Billie Ann McKellar says, “We can’t keep them on the shelves – they are all eventually sold.”
The variety of pieces ranges from small decorative objects to large bowls and pots, vases, pipes and pitchers. Traditional wedding jugs, showing the bride and groom, were made to be broken, thrown over the shoulders of the married couple and falling to the floor. The number of broken pieces was believed to indicate the number of children they would have. Archaeological digs offer a sure sign that the traditions and techniques have remained intact as an unwritten code. Potsherds (pieces of pottery) unearthed in the area indicate that pots hundreds of years old resemble modern ones.
Perhaps the most special of all of Margaret Robbins’ pottery are two pieces yet to be finished. On her kitchen counter, there are two elegant vases started by her father Earl and signed in 1993. For some reason, he set them aside before they could be burned. Over time, nearly 20 years, they have taken on the look of a natural patina and glaze without the use of heat. Following Earl’s death in 2011, Margaret was able to retrieve these pieces from his workshop, and she will add her own touch to them before burning them in his outdoor stove. The vases won’t be for sale. To Margaret, they are priceless. She’ll keep them in her home, to honor her bond with Earl as father and daughter, as gifted potters, and as proud people still connected to the land. Margaret’s granddaughters, Skyler and Sarah, proudly speak of their first pieces. They have already begun their apprenticeships as Catawba Indian potters.