One of my mother’s great friends Natasha Smoke Santiago is an amazing Mohawk potter. She travels around the country teaching classes on indigenous pottery making. She is working to help revitalizing Haudenosaunee ( Iroquois) pottery traditions, which were largely lost due to colonization and the availability of metal pots.
Please go check out her website called Storytellers House, to see some of the magnificent pots she is making. We got to see her craft several cooking pots for the indigenous chefs to use at the Great Lakes Intertribal Food Summit at Gun Lake Potawatomi tribal lands in Michigan last spring.
Pottery was largely women’s work among many native communities in North America. The creative designs and styles varies among different nations.
Coiling is the most common technique when it came to making pots, bowls, etc. The potter layers coils of rolled clay to create an even and sturdy structure of the vessel. The bumps are evened out and scraped and shaped smooth before decorative touches are added.
Before the pottery is fired it is burnished with a smooth stone to add a sheen and smooth the outside. Textures and patterns are also inscribed. Potters use things from the natural environment to decorate and imprint the clay before it hardens, such as corn cobs, shells, leaves, sticks and carved wooden stamps. Then the slip is added. Slip is a watered down clay pigment brushed or rubbed into the pottery before firing to add a smoother texture and a different color as well.
Prior to contact, before kilns were widely available, the pottery was usually open-air fired or pit fired; In pit-firing, the pottery is placed in a shallow pit dug into the ground along with other unfired pottery, covered with wood and brush, or dung, then set on fire where it can harden at temperatures of 1300 degrees F or more. When pit fired the vessels can take on different shades and hues based on where they were placed in the fire, which leaves a black or brown patterns on the outside. We learned also that when the pots are still red hot, they can be dipped in woodshavings to create a blackened surface. It is so stunning and looks like the night sky. Here is a mug that was made using that technique.
Micaceous clay pottery is very popular in the southwest in New Mexico, Arizona, etc. It is made using clay with deposits of mica in it, giving the pottery speckles of shimmer. From Sheldon Nunez-Velarde’s website, we read a little about the history of pottery for the Jicarilla Apache people.
“There are two groups of Jicarilla Apache’s: the Olleros or the “potters” and the Llaneros or the “plainsmens”. These terms came from the Spanish who first arrived in the region in 1540 A.D.
While Jicarilla Apache basketry stood out, as witnessed by the name “Jicarilla”, pottery also impressed the earlier Spanish, who dubbed some of the apache people that lived near or in the mountains, “Ollero”, meaning potters.
Like our Pueblo neighbors who are more widely known for their use of mica clay, the Jicarilla in Northern New Mexico made our cooking ware from the land’s unique deposits of mica filled soil. Micas’s special heat-retentive qualities make this clay particularly efficient for cooking.”
Our family had the opportunity to study and make pots and bowls with Felipe Ortega, a international reknowned master of Jicarilla Apache Pottery. We recently learned of his passing, and are grateful for his teachings and hope to continue to practice making pots in his style. He was a really hilarious teacher and a creative soul. We will always remember our time spent with him and his students in La Madera, New Mexico.
Please take the time to look at the gallery on his website to see his beautiful creations and legacy. Here is a photo of the bean pot we have that he made.
Micaceous clay pots are well known for cooking beans because people say the beans taste sweeter and are easier to digest when cooked in the clay pot. You can cook with them over an open fire or even on a stovetop. We make stews and hominy and beans in our treasured pot.
This past December we met a man named Sheldon Nunez-Velarde while at an Indigenous food event in Ajo, AZ. He makes gorgeous pots and bowls. He is reviving the tradition in his bloodlines, since he descends from potters but that practice was disrupted in his family. He says:
“The last person to to make micaceous pottery in my family was my great, great, grandmother, “O’ Ha Montoya”. She was born a “free” nomadic Jicarilla Apache, living on the plains and mountains in the area of Cimmaron, N.M. Eventually She along with other Jicarillas were forced to settle on our present reservation.
As a child I was always attracted to the old blacken used micaceous vessels stored in my grandmother’s curio cabinet. The mica flecks were pretty and shiny. At that time my grandmother could only remember her grandmother making pottery. No one in our family knew how to make pottery anymore. I had a calling at age 13 and was determined to make pottery. By chance I got a summer youth job working at the old Cultural Resource Center in Dulce. I learned how to make micaceous pottery from Mrs. Lydia Pesata a well known Jicarilla Traditonal Artist, and with guidance from Felipe Ortega, who is also a well known Micaceous Potter of Jicarilla decent.”
Please take a moment to go to his website and check out his exquisite pots and support a native artist making functional and beautiful indigenous cookware.
As a integral part of the indigenous culinary movement, it’s important to think about traditional pre-colonial cookware. I hope this inspires you to think about what cooking vessels our ancestors used, and how we can bring these back into modern day kitchen culture. The food just tastes so different when cooked inside these clay pots, and there are so many techniques to learn about how best to cook with them as well. We are always learning more about the culinary traditions of those who came before us.