Family Economy Based on Pottery

With the coming of the white man the Catawba faced immediate economic disaster based first on disease. When Hernando De Soto visited the Nation in 1540, contagion had already begun a catastrophic population decline (Robertson 1993:83). Most of the epidemics the Catawba Nation endured are barely recorded (Dobyns 1983), but we do know that in the smallpox visitation of 1759, the Catawba lost half their population. Periodic disasters began in 1539 before de Soto's arrival at Cofitachiqui and ended with the influenza epidemic of 1918 (South Carolina Gazette, 15 December 1760:1; Record, 7 October 1918:5; Evening Herald, 10 October 1918:3). Children were orphaned and women were left to raise families alone. Peter Harris's family fell victim to the 1759 epidemic and he was taken in and raised by the Spratt family (Spratt n.d.:64). Other examples of this sort abounded but went unrecorded as families struggled to care for their own as best they could.

By the time the Catawba in the eighteenth century first visited the Virginia Colony to settle a business deal, their fate had already been long sealed. Yet, even though the Indians had endured much in the way of tragedy, the European settlers met confident men (Passport 1715). Although greatly reduced in number by the introduction of European disease, the Catawba still possessed a culture that satisfied all their basic needs. Their huge land holdings included much of the territory from South Carolina through Central North Carolina into Southern Virginia in the area around modern Danville. The Catawba Nation staved off attacks from their Native American neighbors but they had undoubtedly heard that strife also occurred between the Powhatan Confederation and the English. Potential struggles aside, eagerness to improve their material culture led the Catawba to journey north to trade for a wondrous new commodity—iron (Richter 2001:41-63).

A business deal was soon made between the Virginians and the Catawba Nation (Brown 1966:48-58), and the fate of the Catawba was sealed. The Catawba had little that the Europeans wanted and a truly equitable balance in trade was never established. The woodland resources the Indians offered, mainly animal skins, were soon depleted. A second resource that came into full play was the trade in Indian slaves. This traffic had a devastating effect on the Catawba and their neighbors. The Native American population was quickly decimated beyond the losses suffered from 1521 to 1690. The erosive forces of the slave trade were combined with repeated epidemics and the demoralizing effects of another new commodity, alcohol. In time, the Catawba men were left unemployed, and a profound feeling of hopelessness set in. Despair intensified when the Indian wars began to reach genocidal proportions. This was especially true when the Catawba faced the fury of the Iroquois (Brown 1966:262 ff), when, for the first time in Catawba history, the Catawba defenses were inadequate. The destruction of the Nation's confidence was nearly complete when the unemployed Catawba men were occupied in the ignoble pursuit of runaway Negro slaves for cash (Gazette of the State of Georgia, 10 May 1787:2).

As the Native American economy was destroyed, it was replaced by a European emphasis on money and production (Richter 2001:41-53). At the end of the French and Indian War, the land of the Catawba Nation was surrounded by settlers (Hewatt 1961). In a valiant attempt to save their resources, the Catawba signed the Treaty of Pine Tree Hill in 1760 and the Treaty of Augusta in 1763. The Indians surrendered millions of acres to the Europeans, but they retained their ancient hunting rights to all of South Carolina. They naively thought their economy was safe, and that they could manage with their 144,000-acre reserve. The eighteenth-century record is replete with accounts of white farmers attacking Catawba hunting parties (Bull, A Proclamation . . . , 1770; Bull, A Proclamation . . . , 1771). The Indians were beaten, their forest products destroyed or stolen. As a result, the Ca-tawba could no longer follow their old occupation of hunting. Fishing took up some of the slack, but the Catawba had long depended on a mixed hunting and gathering economy supplemented by some farming. The traditional Indian farming methods could not compete with the young and hearty plantation system. So dismal was the situation that many Catawba despaired of farming. The Catawba slipped into a long economic decline.

Fortunately for the survival of the Catawba as a people, the pragmatic potters learned, probably during the eighteenth century, that their smoothly burnished and incised ware was attractive to the settlers

(Simms 1859). When all else failed, a market was found for something totally Indian in both manufacture and character, and between 1780 and 1940, pottery dominated the Catawba economy. Other occupations such as farm day labor played a role in sustaining the economy; for instance, during the proper season, the men cut cordwood, did day labor, and some became skilled enough in European farming methods to sharecrop. Also, from the 1830s to 1959, at least one family was sustained by providing ferry service on the Catawba River (Evening Herald, 18 March 1963:2). After the Treaty of 1840, South Carolina also provided some financial assistance through an annual appropriation necessitated by the loss of rent money from Catawba leases. These appropriations began in 1841 and were repealed in 1951 (Act 2831 1842). Then, from the first decade of the twentieth century to World War II, a few of the Indians were employed in the local cotton mills (U.S. Congress 1931). The number employed in this manner was never sufficient to have an effect on the total tribal economy though because most mill owners refused to employ Catawba (U.S. Congress 1931). Pottery always provided a subsistence living throughout these years of economic confusion.

Clay was free to those who wanted to dig it. The required tools were easily obtained. Wood used in burning pottery was always stacked up in the yard, and more could be gathered from reservation land. While a man was out cutting firewood for 50 cents or less a cord, his wife could match his wages by making pipes. At the turn of the century, for instance, a dozen Catawba pipes went at wholesale for $1.25 (Georgia Harris, interview, 1 March 1977, BC). When not doing day labor, the men also worked in clay. Everyone from the age of 10 on was employed in clay. When an individual visited another's home, that person customarily became involved in the pottery tasks at hand.

Those who have studied the Catawba have noted the complexity of their poverty-stricken situation. In 1907, M. R. Harrington observed the poor quality of the reservation farmland (Harrington 1908:339). Some 23 years later, a U.S. Senate Committee visited the reservation. Its members were appalled at the meager resources on which the Catawba were forced to sustain themselves (U.S. Congress 1931). Today some of the Indians joke that a federal Farm Program official tested the reservation soil and found that the rutted roads contained more nutrients than the gardens worked by the struggling Catawba (Willie Sanders, interview, 1 March 1987, BC).

Soon after ethnologists took an interest in the Catawba, the potters began to leave written records of the prices they expected to receive for their pottery. In 1921, Nettie Owl provided Frank G. Speck with a number of her vessels. In one of several letters to the anthropologist, she provided an inventory/price list for a shipment (N. Owl to F. G. Speck, 1921, American Philosophical Society, Philadelphia):

Low prices did not discourage the Indians. Work in clay continued to be an economic necessity, and for a woman like Nettie Owl pottery was often the only recourse. Fortunately, she was a master potter of exceptional skill.

Margaret Brown made pottery throughout her life. Her granddaughter, Lula Beck, recalled her efforts: "She made Indian pottery as far back as I can remember. I can never remember her doing anything else. She would make big pieces. She'd make the peace pipe. That's about the smallest pottery she made" (Lula Beck, interview, 13 May 1987, BC). Another potter who continuously worked in clay was Rachel Brown, the wife of John Brown. At the time the Browns generously assisted Harrington in his research they depended on income from pottery and from running a ferry on the river. When John Brown died in 1927 (Evening Herald, 21 June 1927:1), Rachel Brown continued to make pottery until shortly before her death in 1960 (Evening Herald, 21 September 1960:2). Nearly all the senior tribal members remember Granny Wysie, as she is still fondly called. "The pottery was all she had, and she'd go [to town] every week with those pottery. She made beautiful pots. She made flowerpots. She made a lot of flowerpots and sold them" (Catherine Canty, interview, 3 March 1981, BC).

Many Catawba potters were never able to produce and market a large volume of pottery. These individuals preferred to follow a mixed economy. Edith Brown had a large family to support, and pottery played some role in her household budget until approximately five years before her death (Edith Brown, interview, 14 June 1985, BC). In her younger years she made pottery after finishing her farm work. Whenever possible she found work hoeing and picking cotton for others (Georgia Harris, interview, 22 March 1980, BC). The same was true for Margaret Harris, the widowed mother of Georgia Harris who also raised a large family alone. "She worked hard. Like I told you, she worked on the farm—rented the farm out for half . . . so she could raise her family. She did that; and, she'd make some pottery after she'd get through the crop" (Georgia Harris, interview, 22 March 1980, BC).

Mildred Blue provided a key to understanding the importance of pot

4 vases 1 pot pipe of peace

5 pipes

tery. In talking about her grandmother, Rosie Wheelock, Mildred Blue declared: "Then that was about the only way they had to make any money, extra money for living expenses" (Mildred Blue, interview, 24 March 1983, BC). It was often the only way the Indians had of obtaining cash. Even then pottery sometimes brought an exchange of farm produce rather than cash money.

The Catawba had certain advantages. The reservation was a haven where renting homes was rare, and houses were traded for nominal fees or for goods of little value. For instance, Bill Sanders traded his family's reservation home for a gun (Willie Sanders, interview, 20 March 1983, BC). Most families farmed in the reservation's river bottomland and kept garden plots as well. If the Indians wanted extras or ready cash, pottery provided a way. While work in the public sector was not a certainty, the clay supply was inexhaustible.

So strong was the tradition and so difficult was public work to find that those who left the reservation often continued to make pottery. Such was the case with Theodore and Artemis Harris when they moved to the village of York about 30 miles from the reservation in the 1930s (Garfield Harris, "My Story," autobiographical sketch, BC). Theodore was a sharecropper and was never certain his crop would make enough to support his large family. The pottery built and sold by Artemis pulled up the slack and often put food on the table.

A few Catawba families have always made an adequate living from clay. The John Brown family often managed from clay alone (Evening Herald, 1 May 1909:1). Nettie Harris Owl was estranged from her Cherokee husband, Lloyd Owl, for much of her married life and was able to make a living from her pottery (Lula Owl Gloyne, interview, 1979, BC). She also sent her children to Indian schools. All of them had professional careers either in the Indian service or in the public sector (Records of the Owl Family).

The Gordons are perhaps the best-known family to have subsisted on pottery before World War II. The backbone for the business was Sallie Gordon, a skilled and prolific master potter. Sallie was always so busy working in clay that she depended on her son Ervin to sell her wares for her. Ervin Gordon, for the most part, only sold pottery (Lula Beck, interview, 13 May 1987, BC). At first he sold his mother's work. Then after Ervin Gordon and Eliza Harris married, Sallie and Eliza worked together. Ervin gathered the wood and burned the pottery. The Gordons also kept a sign on the road in front of their home and shared the proceeds from the sales of their work (Georgia Harris, interview, 19 March 1980, BC). They also made periodic trips to the mountains and the Cherokee Reservation, and they always attended fairs. On occasion they sold at Winthrop College. Ervin and Eliza Gordon also spent a couple summers demonstrating and selling pottery in Tanners-ville, Pennsylvania (Georgia Harris, interview, 19 March 1980, BC).

During the last quarter of the twentieth century, the most successful commercial efforts were those of Sara Lee and Foxx Ayers, and the Earl Robbins family. Although the Ayers family lived in West Columbia, South Carolina, far from the reservation, they did a brisk trade in pottery for many years. In the 1980s, their work was found in galleries and museum shops such as Gallery IV in Irmo, South Carolina; shops at the local airport terminal in Columbia, South Carolina; the Bureau of Indian Affairs Indian Shop in Washington, D.C.; the York County Museum in Rock Hill; the Schiele Museum of Natural History Gift Shop in Gastonia, North Carolina; the gift shop at the Charlotte Nature Museum (now the Discovery Place) in Charlotte, North Carolina; and the gift shop of the Heye Foundation at the Museum of the American Indian in New York.

Today, the work of Earl and Viola Robbins, and the work of their daughter Margaret Tucker, appears in numerous shops. Cheryl and Brian Sanders like to concentrate specifically on museum shop sales. These two families are adept at working up a deal that is to their advantage. They do not, however, peddle their wares but prefer to wait for the particular shop or museum to contact them.

Frank and Henry Canty did not make pottery but sold vessels obtained from others. Both were homeless men who supported themselves as best they could by doing odd jobs for sympathetic Catawba families. Many years later, Bertha Harris recalled their method of obtaining some of life's necessities:

Well, one thing Frank used to do—I reckon Henry did it too—is get pottery from different ones. He'd go cut and carry wood for them and they'd give him pottery, and he'd take it to Rock Hill and get his liquor to drink. That's the way—I know Frank got his like that. . . . He got pottery from his mother like that, carrying wood up—go out and cut and carry wood. Pile it up in the yard and get his pottery and go around to different ones like that. He asked if he could. I know he never got paid, but I don't know how he got rid of the pottery up there. He had to sell it kind of cheap. I don't know how much he got for it, but he done things like that. (Bertha Harris, interview, 2 March 1981, BC)

A family crisis often initiated a tremendous production of pottery. Such was the case when ex-chief Raymond Harris passed away leaving his young wife with a large family to raise (Evening Herald, 24 January 1952:2). Nola Harris joined forces with other family members and made pottery. She and Georgia Harris worked together. Nola's brother,

Douglas Harris, carried their handiwork to the mountains. The proceeds were divided in the following fashion:

Well, I made pottery during the first year we lived over there cause Georgia came down and we made pots together and took them to the mountains—her and my brother. . . . No, they got a little more than 10 cents for them. Yes, they got more than that for them, but it wasn't all that much. . . . I didn't have any furniture in the living room, and the whole living room floor was covered with pots, and she and I rubbed them and fixed them up, and they took them to the mountains and give me half of it, and she got half. I think I got around $60 out of my share, and she had the other half. (Nola Campbell, interview, 16 June 1985, BC)

Since these hard times, the economic place pottery held among the Catawba changed considerably (Evening Herald, 26 March 1942:1). As the Indians found stable public sector work during World War II, nearly all the potters abandoned working in clay full-time. A few tried to balance public work with pottery. Eliza Gordon, for instance, worked in a cotton mill and made pottery, too (Willie Sanders, interview, 20 March 1983, BC). Most potters, content with their mill salaries, had discontinued making pottery by the 1960s. Elsie George's husband, Landrum, worked in the mills and served in World War II. For Elsie, pottery was never crucial to putting food on the table. "I never made many pieces. Just small ones. I did make some in the 1930s, and I was married in 1932. Then the war came along, and Landrum was in the army. We did not need the money" (Elsie George, interview, 22 March 1977, BC).

Bertha Harris followed a similar pattern. She stopped working in clay in 1948 and did not resume pottery-making activities until the last part of the twentieth century. Her 28 years away from the craft were only broken in 1971 when she demonstrated for the Mormon Church in Rock Hill. She resumed pursuing her craft again when she was asked to teach pottery making in 1976. Mrs. Harris was working in clay on a more or less regular basis throughout the 1980s. Her pottery, however, did not play a major role in her family's economy. Her work brought good prices and gave her a great sense of satisfaction (Bertha Harris, interview, 1 March 1977, BC).

Between 1930 and 1960, the Catawba pottery prices actually fell, mostly as a direct result of the North Carolina mountain trade and the mass production it demanded of the potters. Other problems caused by this market are discussed in chapter 3, on the peddling tradition. Hand-in-hand with the economic competition of public sector work went misdirected pride. During the 1940s and 1950s, it was not uncommon for male family members to balk at seeing the craft practiced; they linked pottery making to a time of a great economic depression. Once the Indians found jobs in the mills or in some other public sector, they felt that pottery was neither necessary nor desirable. When asked about his wife's pottery, Richard Harris was reluctant to talk about it and said, "She [October Harris] sold it or gave it away or something" (Richard Harris, interview, 2 August 1982, BC). In other words, October did not have to work, as had her mother and grandmother. Richard Harris's family had outgrown the making of pottery and did much better on the labors of a male breadwinner. Georgia Harris elaborates on this attitude: "I love to [make pottery]. My son and my husband used to fuss at me. That's the reason I quit making pots. They said, 'Quit making them. You don't get nothing for them, and they are too hard to make. Quit making them.' They'd just fuss. Course my husband made good money. I didn't have to make them. I just loved to fool with them" (Georgia Harris, interview, 22 March 1980, BC).

The revival of the tradition is directly linked to contemporary pricing. Catawba pottery prices did not begin to become competitive with hourly wages until early in the 1970s. A look at Doris Blue's price list from this period helps illustrate the rapid rise in pottery prices. Though small, her vessels were among the best produced by any Catawba potter in the twentieth century. Contemporary potters are hard pressed to equal the quality of Doris Blue's work. It is significant that Doris felt she was charging enough for her pieces that she did not have to charge for postage and handling (D. Blue to T. J. Blumer, letter, 1970, BC):

Indian head pipe $2.00

Tomahawk pipe 2.00

Hatchet pipe 2.00

Plain pipe 1.00

Canoe, turtle, duck or ashtray 2.00

While Doris Blue's prices were still low, 20 years earlier the same pipes brought 10 to 25 cents each in the mountains of North Carolina. These prices can also be compared with Nettie Owl's price list in 1921. By 1973, Doris Blue's prices had risen to $2.50 for small effigies and $3.50 for each pipe (Price List 1979a BC).

The economic scales tipped in favor of the potters in 1973 when Steven Baker organized a Catawba exhibit/sale at the Columbia Museum of Art (Baker 1973). The work of four master potters was included in this important event: Sara Lee Ayers, Doris Blue, Georgia

Harris, and Arzada Sanders. Of these, sales of the pottery of Sara Lee Ayers and Arzada Sanders provided their households with a major economic contribution. Doris Blue and Georgia Harris produced a limited quantity of pottery, and their economic dependence on pottery was minimal. Overriding the objections of Sara Lee Ayers, Arzada Sanders, and Doris Blue, Steve Baker insisted that the potters raise their prices comparable to the art sold at the Museum at that time.

At this 1973 exhibition, the Catawba were for the first time exposed to a market not only interested in fine examples of Catawba wares but also willing to pay appropriate prices for them. It will always remain to Steve Baker's credit that he correctly assessed the value of the pottery. The success of this exhibit rippled through the Catawba community. The Indians found it hard to imagine that a Catawba pot could be sold at prices that ranged from 25 dollars to 100 dollars (Doris Blue, interview, 1974, BC). Before this event, the top Catawba price was about 15 dollars. Baker also tried to convince the potters they were making art, not just the pottery of their elders and ancestors. This idea eventually caught on but it took time.

The new market ushered in by Steve Baker would speak to the new Catawba economy, which was often based on the minimum wage. All the Indians could profit from such fair prices depending on the quality of the work. Young and energetic potters found it entirely possible to make far more than the minimum wage in this traditional craft.

Another look at the prices charged by Doris Blue reveals that prices continued to climb. Her price list of October 1978 reveals the trend started by Baker (Field Notes 1978 BC):

Indian head pot

$90.00

Snake pot

90.00

Bowl

30.00

Pitcher 10"

60.00

Peace pipe

12.00

Pipes, ornate

8.00

Plain pipes

5.00

It must be remembered that Doris Blue, master potter, only produced pottery of museum quality.

In 1979, the fledgling Catawba Arts and Crafts Association sponsored an exhibit/sale at the Smithsonian's Renwick Gallery. By this time confusion reigned supreme among the potters concerning what they considered fair prices. Some potters who were still aspiring to trade-ware quality pieces wanted museum prices for two reasons: the

Smithsonian was a museum and the people in Washington had much more money than South Carolinians and would pay more for examples of Catawba wares. Other potters felt fortunate to send their work to Washington and just wanted their work to sell. The Renwick price list is interesting. The potter, quality, and size of the vessels offered is unknown:

Gypsy pot

$104.00

Jar with pointed handles

40.00

Open bowl

22.50

Pitcher

59.00

Bowl with ruffled rim

72.50

Bowl with four legs

40.00

Indian head pipe

16.00

Pitcher

27.00

Indian head pot

144.00

Snake pot

132.50

Duck pot

64.00

Indian head jar

136.00

Indian head jar

120.00

Basket bowl

40.00

Peace pipe

22.50

Jar

48.00

Rebecca pitcher

27.25

Pitcher

59.00

Axe pipe

9.75

Jar with handles

59.25

Duck pot

14.50

Bowl with holes on rim

22.50

Comb pipe

13.00

Comb pipe

13.00

Snake pot

144.00

Candle sticks

27.25

Pitcher

27.00

Plain pipe

11.25

Jar with square handles

56.50

Peace pipe

19.25

Pitcher

136.00

Pitcher

48.00

Jar

12.75

Axe pipe

16.00

Jar

128.00

Basket bowl

12.75

Wedding jug Pitcher

Rebecca pitcher

Jar with pointed handles

50.00 12.75

27.25

160.00

(Renwick Notes 1979b BC)

During this same period, Edna Brown's trade-ware quality work had risen to a fifteen-dollar minimum per vessel. She sold small toy effigies at much lower prices. Edith Brown, whose work hovered between museum quality and trade-ware quality depending on the vessel, used the following price list (Price List 1979a BC):

Small footed bowl $35.00

Medium footed bowl 40.00

Pitcher 50.00

Bowl with handles 35.00

Today, several Catawba potters are asking from 300 to 1,600 dollars for large museum pieces, and they sell the vessels. When a large vessel of this quality is safely ushered through the fire, it is sold within minutes. All of these potters, new generation master potters, have other incomes. It is difficult to say what role pottery plays in their economies. For such potters and those who want to follow their example, Catawba pottery has come a long way.

The Catawba tradition is firmly linked to the family. It is a cottage industry. All members of a given family are involved at different points in the long process from the clay holes to the fire. Younger members begin by playing in the clay or watching the fire and gathering wood. Older siblings may be trusted to rub pots. Serious building is always wisely left to the oldest and best potters. On occasion men join the family effort and scrape and rub pots. Some men have always been considered master potters in their own right. Such was the case with Billy George and Epp Harris, circa 1900. Today, Earl Robbins is probably the best-known but not the only male potter. The men have always helped in the strenuous task of digging the clay. Seldom, however, is a man who is not a potter left with the responsibility of choosing suitable clay. This task is reserved for the potters, and master potters are naturally more particular about their clay than others. All family members take part in producing traditional Catawba pottery.

In 1908, Harrington illustrated this interaction in his study of the

Was this article helpful?

0 0

Responses

  • vinicio colombo
    What was catawba indians economy?
    7 years ago

Post a comment