Like the other Pueblos, the Zunis have a long and fruitful tradition of pottery making and their historic ceramics are among the best. Zuni Pottery came close to dying out in the last century, but a handful of ladies, including the Tewa, Daisy Nampeyo, began teaching young people the art, and pottery is making a comeback. Many young potters use commercial clay, some even poured greenware, which keeps down the price, but there are several deposits of high grade clay on Zuni lands. This clay is very clean and has high-fire capability.
Zuni Pottery artists use traditional shapes and designs, but some artists have gone their own path, drawing on traditional forms and subject matter, but creating something totally new. In the past clay figures were attached to bowls and pots, creating relief designs. These were usually water associated animals and placed on the corn-meal bowls which are used to bless katsinas (Kokos) and objects of importance. Today, pitchers are made in the form of ducks, and lizards twine around (and even through) pottery objects of all kinds. The frogs of earlier times are also pictured in new shapes.
During the Spanish era Zuni Pottery pretty much stuck with traditional forms and designs because there was no commercial market for pottery. Once the Anglo Americans came on the scene this quickly changed. For one thing; brass, copper and iron pots and pans made pottery unnecessary. By the turn of the century Zunis were making ceramic moccasins and human forms that sometimes poked fun at the Whites; animals like deer, horses and cows and other non-utilitarian pieces. The Zunis were amused at the Anglo affection for objects with no other value than being put on the mantel and looked at.
Today those tourist items aren’t often made, but the old ones fetch high prices in auctions. There was a period in the middle of the last century when copies of “fetish” bowls became the rage and many of them were turned out. It may have been Teddy Weahkee’s idea to make them. A regular bowl with a hole bored in the side (often Acoma pottery as it was cheaper) would be covered with pitch colored with soot and and the bowl would be rolled in chips of turquoise like breading a piece of chicken.
Carved fetishes of antler, dressed with beads and feathers, usually in the form of Kolowisi, the great serpent, were tied to the sides. To make the bowl really authentic, another fetish would be place in the bottom of the bowl on a bed of cornmeal. The prospective buyer would be told the fetishes in and on the pot had to be fed through the hole in the side. Once again, the traders were selling not only the idea of authenticity, but the aura of “primitive” religion. There are still a few of these bowls in the village, real ones, but the ones that made it out were almost always fakes, which did not diminish their value as art objects.
About the time of this fad, C.G. Wallace perpetrated one of the greatest scams in Indian art history. He started selling “ceremonial” bowls, “stolen” from the kivas, and peddling them to the Laboratory of Anthropology and Santa Fe. These items were vetted by several important and respected authorities on Native art and culture. They wanted more of them and Wallace obliged. It was many years before the swindle was exposed.