The Catawba pottery tradition is alive and well. The craft remains a strong reflection of what the Catawbas' ancestors made before the coming of the white man. The pottery is still closely tied to the Indians' economy. Today, however, the potters are amazed to learn the prices demanded by their predecessors. The smoking pipe that sold for 10 cents in 1900 sells for a minimum of 45 dollars or more today. The same is true of every other shape produced by the potters. Making Ca-tawba pottery is lucrative, and this is one key to the craft's survival into the third millennium.
The Catawba peddled pottery from the earliest historical times to the 1960s. Although they no longer go from house to house, some still visit the gift shops in the North Carolina mountains and at Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. The main emphasis has shifted from quick wholesale deals to approaching enthusiastic collectors and museum shops that carry the best in folk art. The modern Catawba potters want to see their work being exhibited behind glass.
The Indians began to attend fairs and historical events at the turn of the twentieth century, and their businesses profited. Catawba potters still attend such events, but they now expect to exhibit in a booth and they expect to be paid. If sales are not good, they do not go back. Although some follow the powwow circuit, which is known for low prices, most aim for more sophisticated events. The use of business cards, cell phones, and pamphlets that market a particular potter's wares is the growing trend.
A partial change in the teaching of the tradition has occurred. Classes have been offered to interested tribal members since 1976 because of a new scattered family lifestyle, yet most of the new generation master potters still learn in a modified traditional way. They also turn to tutorials within the community. Each potter has mentor potters who provide help in making particular shapes. The new method appears to be working. The tradition is successfully being passed on from one generation to the next.
The Catawba stubbornly cling to their native clay. Although commercial clay is available, they continue to work with the clay of their ancestors, obtained in Nisbet Bottoms. They visit the holes in groups, usually individuals from a particular family. Once the clay is removed, the Indians carefully fill in the hole. At home, the clay is mixed by the old formula and strained through window wire to remove impurities. Since clay is so difficult to obtain, it is not wasted.
The tools the Catawba use to build their pots have changed somewhat in the last century. The Indians turn to things found in the kitchen for much of their work. The main tools remain a pair of talented hands and burnishing rocks, most of which are family heirlooms. The method of constructing each form remains fixed. If a young potter does not know how to make a wedding jug, the individual turns to a potter who will provide the necessary lessons. In this way, only the most conservative construction methods are passed to the next generation of potters.
Seldom will a Catawba potter incise a vessel with a motif that is foreign in origin. The goal is to produce pottery exactly as that of the "old Indians." Much of this incising is found on small pieces, particularly smoking pipes and the venerated peace pipe. Future work by archaeologists will perhaps give us a clearer picture of the Catawba incising tradition. Large vessels are seldom given this extended treatment. The goal seems to be to let the larger vessel's grace carry it to a successful sale.
The Catawba burning method has remained pretty much the same from ancient times to the present. Changes have occurred in the location of the fire but not in the fire itself or its results on the pottery. Today the majority of potters dry their work in the kitchen oven. Once the potter determines that the vessels are ready for the full impact of the fire, the pieces are transferred to a fire prepared in the yard. Crude efforts are made to protect the pottery during this critical stage. The major problems come from wind and rain. Some of the potters burn their pottery in a hole while others surround the fire with a barrier of sheet metal. A successful fire produces a beautiful ware with mottled colors of red, gray, black, brown, and shades that even approach white.
An important aspect of the Catawba tradition is its amazing endurance. In 1900, the tribe counted around 20 potters, total. In 2003, the tribe points to more than 75 adult potters. Today's community proudly counts approximately 20 master potters and the number is growing. These new generation master potters are determined to preserve the pottery just as grandma made it. The trend of Catawba history from the early nineteenth century to recent times has been toward eventual extinction of this rare art form, yet from all appearances, the Catawba tradition is far from vanishing. The folk art treasure that has survived just a few miles east of Rock Hill, South Carolina, will continue to delight collectors, ethnologists, journalists, archaeologists, historians, and students at every level.
Pride is another key to the survival of the Catawba tradition. All of the Indians, those who make pottery and those who do not, are proud of their tradition. Those who do not make pottery plan to do so one day. The Indians calculate their attachment to the Catawba Nation by measuring their involvement in making pottery. Nearly all of the tribe's artistic energy flows in the direction of working in clay. Everyone is aware of one simple fact: without pottery the Catawba would not have survived the long period of social, economic, and political stress between the sixteenth century and the present. As long as the Catawba Nation continues to be a presence in South Carolina, the Indians will be known for their pottery.
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