“Our land, our religion and our life are one.”
The young girl stood at the edge of the mesa facing the rising sun. She, her mother, aunt and grandmother whispered prayers in the dawn's first light: prayers for long life, health and well being. After breathing her prayers into the sacred cornmeal held in her hands, the girl threw the meal to the east, releasing her prayers to the wind.
This was a special day for the maiden, her first trip with the elders to collect pottery clay. From earliest childhood she'd watched the women walk south from the village to a secret location on the distant butte. On this day she would accompany them. Once there, before digging into the clay deposit with their hoes, the women would make offerings and recite more prayers.
This is the way in which all traditional southwest Native American pottery begins. From Hopi mesas to Navajo sheep camps, Northern pueblos to southern Zuni – first and foremost are the prayers. The potter's mind must be set on a path of respect and balance, gratitude to Mother Earth and harmony.
“The clay is a living being when you put it in your hand...a lump that says to me,”Make me as I am...make me beautiful.” So we converse, every step of the way, the clay and I...Oh yes, I pray. One must be alone with the Creator – the Supreme Being – to capture the feeling of oneness. One with the clay. One with the Creator. One with every living thing including the grains of sand.” Polingaysi Qoyawayma
After transporting the clay back to the village, the girl remained close to her grandmother, watching and listening as she learned the traditional potter's way.
First the dry clay had to be pulverized. Then impurities such as pebbles, roots and twigs were carefully removed by hand. A temper was ground, another agent to make the clay harder and keep it from shrinking and cracking. Her grandmother used a temper of fine sand, but other potters used crushed potsherds, volcanic ash or ground stone. The elder woman then mixed the clay and temper with water until they formed a clay ball. She spent hours kneading the ball on a flat stone, removing air pockets which might burst during firing. The entire process of pulverizing, grinding, tempering and kneading was an art which took many days, each potter working with Mother Earth in her own unique way.
After curing, the clay was ready to be formed into a vessel. The grandmother used the ancient coil technique for her large and lovely pieces. She rubbed chunks of clay between her hands to form long, clay ropes which she coiled round and round on a puki, a concave ceramic base which she'd made weeks before. This base gave the damp coils the support they needed as the pot rose higher and higher. Throughout this process the grandmother used a gourd scraper to smooth the pot's inner and outer walls so no trace of coil was visible. When the pot was completed and firm, she polished it with a special stone, one of many passed down through generations in her family. Days later, when the vessel was dry, she applied a slip of fine white clay to its outer surface with a wool rag. Again the pot was dried and polished until it shone.
Now the pot was ready to be decorated. The grandmother used brushes of chewed yucca fibers to create elegant designs of feathers, bird claws and migration patterns. She made her paints from the natural world around her: yellow ochre, ironstone, beeweed and mustard. Finally the pot was ready to be fired.
The firing took place on a calm day in a beehive mound of potsherds and sheep dung. No words were spoken as the fire burned, least spirits be offended and shatter the pot with a sudden gust of wind. If the firing was successful a vessel of great beauty emerged, an artistic expression melding earth, religion, nature, cultural tradition and family.
All of this knowledge the young girl came to master and deeply know. And as the years turned round with the seasons, she too became a grandmother, leading her granddaughter south from the village, on the sacred path of clay.