Family Interaction

Brown family. John Brown and his sons dug the clay. Rachel Brown selected the clay to build pots. John Brown and his children scraped the vessels, and everyone rubbed. Rachel Brown supervised the entire process from digging the clay to peddling their wares in nearby towns and hamlets (Harrington 1908).

The situation has changed somewhat today. The modern Catawba family is far more affluent than were those families who worked in clay before 1960. Today's Catawba have suffered from the same disintegration of the family as the rest of society, but this trend has been modified by tribalism, a strong force in the Nation. Until recently, the Catawba were somewhat protected by their rural location and the stability of the local population. Today the reservation seems to be part of the sprawl of bedroom communities that surround Charlotte, North Carolina. While conversion by many to Mormonism has helped maintain the family structure, the automobile, television, a rich array of entertainments, and work off the reservation have all helped alter family interaction during the last 50 years. Today the average Catawba home has added a computer and Internet access to the other electronic gadgets enjoyed by the family.

The Catawba family structure has made the work of historians, ethnologists, anthropologists, and folklorists difficult. Few of these scholars, and there have been many, have had the time to approach the various families to discover how they function together. As a rule, studies have been restricted to a single family or even a single potter, and time has always been limited. Harrington, for instance, spent several days with the Browns (Harrington 1908:399). Speck lengthened his study period and widened the scope of his contacts, but he mostly concentrated on Margaret Brown's extended family (Speck 1934). Today, as a rule, scholars restrict their first-hand Catawba contacts to a quick tour of the reservation.

A census of the contemporary potters has never been compiled. It is doubtful that even the most knowledgeable tribal members can give an accurate estimate of the community's scope. The potters themselves complicate the situation. Some, as part of a sales pitch, leave the impression that the craft is dying. This deception, and this is the correct term, is fortified by the long-standing notion that the Catawba are on the verge of extinction. When the Catawba founded their potters' association in 1977, a proposed name for the group was the Vanishing Catawba Arts and Crafts Association. The implication is that there would soon be no Catawba Indians and hence no pottery. This approach helps sales. It is, however, not true.

It is also difficult for reservation visitors to see that the tradition is family based. No Catawba potter works alone, but this may appear to be the case. All of the Indians enjoy working with others. During the 1980s, Georgia Harris was frequently joined by her sisters-in-law Nola Campbell and Bertha Harris, and by Earl Robbins. They often built the same pieces. The tedious task of rubbing pottery is less burdensome when accompanied by conversation. Mrs. Harris also worked with her grandchildren: William and Jayne Harris, Dean Harris, Curtis Harris, and Shelli Harris, to name a few. This list of work contacts is not complete. Before her retirement in 1993, this highly respected potter was visited by a large number of Indians who were inspired by her productivity and superlative skills.

Today at least 75 Catawba make pottery, and still more dabble in the tradition. Probably more than 100 others assist in some of the more remedial or strenuous tasks. It may be assumed that some of these 100 persons also occasionally make pottery. When the late Louise Bryson was very active in the mid-1970s, her husband Dennis Bryson often tried his hand at making pots. Few of these occasional helpers ever seek recognition as potters. This is especially true of non-Indian spouses. Today a federal injunction also attempts to protect Native American artisans and their work (Public Law 101-644). Others have no intention of building pots but take pleasure in helping in some way. Each potter can and will seek help from family members in times of need.

For instance, Edith Brown's sons and grandsons dug her clay. She picked and mixed it herself and built her own vessels. When it was time to burn pottery, family members were nearby to assist her in the process that requires an open fire and can be dangerous for the elderly (Edith Brown, interview, 1 March 1977, BC). Customers, scholars included, who visited her home seldom met any of these people. Edith Brown was not reluctant to acknowledge their assistance. If such comments were made, they often went unnoticed. Visitors came to buy her signed vessels. They had little interest in who dug the clay or helped in the process. These facts are true of nearly all the many collectors who hunt pots on the reservation.

Today the Catawba family comes together most often when it is time to dig clay. While clay is found on the reservation, the best is from Nisbet Bottoms (the Waxhaw Old Fields), a short distance away in Lancaster County. Several families come together, pool their resources, take several vehicles, and make the project a major outing. Enough clay is dug to last several months or even a full season. Such cooperation exists but does not follow any pattern. The potter's husband may help pick the clay and do other chores (Dennis Bryson, in terview, 1 May 1977, BC). The potter, however, will take the credit and the money earned, as has always been the case. In recalling her childhood years in a family renowned for its pottery, Edna Brown declared, "Mother, Doris, and I worked together for years. Mother and Doris built. I rubbed and burned and gathered the wood. I cannot make pots now because I never made pots until I was too old" (Edna Brown, interview, 22 January 1977, BC). Georgia Harris also worked under similar conditions with her mother and grandmother. Other family members were present and at times would take up some clay and contribute to the work. Today Nola Campbell talks of the time she spent with Georgia Harris. One memory concerns a large canoe Mrs. Harris built and young Nola rubbed. The vessel was so large it had to be laid down during the rubbing process (Nola Campbell, interview, 1 March 1977, BC). There was no original intention that Nola Campbell would do this task. She just visited at the right time and was willing to pitch in and help. Evelyn George describes a similar situation in her family circle: "I had nothing to do. I had one baby, and I lived in my mother's house, and Fannie [Canty] lived in the old house where Frances Wade now lives. I'd go over Fannie's and just work along. We worked outside. We didn't normally work inside the house. When I made for Fanny, I helped her to rub her pots. She made small pieces, not too large. She worked in clay constantly. I also made for my mother in the 1930s" (Evelyn George, interview, 25 March 1977, BC).

An interesting aspect of the Catawba economy and the way the family cooperates is the custom of working for halvers, which may have originated in sharecropping practices. According to this work method, the landowner provides both the land and the seeds for the year's crop. The sharecropper provides the labor, and the end product is shared. Catawba who work in clay for halvers do the same thing. One Indian provides the clay, and the other builds the vessels that are shared between the two. For instance, Elsie George had such an arrangement with Nancy (October) Harris who had trouble obtaining clay. "October was good at making big pots, and she kept half the pots. She really got a bargain because getting the clay worked up is the hard part. It's a long process and takes time" (Elsie George, interview, 22 March 1977, BC).

Providing for the North Carolina mountain trade, which unfortunately relied on quantity, demanded the making of pottery for halvers. Under the worst conditions, the potters had large orders for only one particular vessel (Mae Blue, interview, 21 April 1977, BC). To keep up with these orders, the assistance of others was needed, but the potters seldom could pay cash for such labor. Halvers was the solution.

The making of a number of new and technically complicated shapes including the so-called loving cup and the pan-Indian wedding jar also required the practice. Some of the potters could make these pieces and gladly worked for halvers to obtain them. For instance, Louisa Blue could not make peace pipes. She had others build them for her, and she paid by providing enough clay to make an equal number of vessels. Mae Blue described the custom as she experienced it and provides some valuable insights: "I'd give the clay and I'd get half of the pots made from that clay. For instance, I cannot make a wedding jug. Sallie Beck could make them, and she would make them for me. Nola Campbell can also make the wedding jug, and we would do the same thing. But I never made for anyone else. They could all make better than me, but I'd finish them up good. I've seen them try to fill in rock holes after the pot was built, and it would leave a dent in the pot. Mine were done carefully, but I could not make good—could not make loving cups" (Mae Blue, interview, 21 April 1977, BC).

Since they work in clay to make money, it is only natural that cash is occasionally exchanged between potters. According to Georgia Harris, Rachel Brown's pottery business was often based on large orders. When this happened, Rachel turned to Martha Jane Harris and gladly paid her cash. "My grandmother often made pots for John Brown. They would have a big order, and Rachel wouldn't be able to keep up. Martha Jane would go down there and stay a day and night and make pots. She went several times that I know of. She was fast and took no time when she was younger. She had big hands and that helps. . . . My grandma was a perfectionist" (Georgia Harris, interview, 1 May 1977, BC).

In the 1980s, one potter, Martin Harris, gave the custom of halvers a new twist. Minnie Harris and Freddie Rodgers assisted Martin when he had large orders. Minnie built ashtrays, wall pockets, pitchers, and bowls with loop handles and was paid cash. Freddie Rodgers rubbed the vessels after they were built and scraped; her payment was having her hair fixed (Martin Harris, interview, 5 May 1977, BC).

The following 1995 Price List is only a rough guide for commonly made vessels, and this list does not cover the full range of vessels made:

Cooking pot $15.00^150.00

Large vase $50.00-$i00.00

Miniatures $5.00^45.00

Tooth pick holder $10.00

Plain smoking pipe $10.00

Snake pot $25.00 and up

Smoking pipes $25.00^35.00

Rebecca pitcher Peace pipe Indian head vase Horse pot Wedding jug Animal effigies

  • 25.00-$I00.00
  • 25.00-$50.00
  • 125.00 and up
  • 75.00-$i25.00
  • 50.00-$250.00
  • i5.00-$75.00
  • Price List 1995 BC)

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