My grandmother was Georgia Harris, one of the greatest Catawba Indian potters. Before she died in 1996 at the age of 91, she asked her closest friend, Dr. Thomas Blumer, to deliver her eulogy. To those who didn't know Dr. Blumer, it may have seemed strange that a white scholar from the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., eulogized an elderly Indian woman who had spent most of her life on or near the Catawba Indian Reservation in South Carolina. But Dr. Blumer is not simply a historian with more than 200 publications regarding the Catawba to his credit. Through his selfless dedication to the people and the pottery of the Catawba, he has become our cherished friend.
I heard about Dr. Blumer before I had the opportunity to meet him. Nearly 30 years ago, my grandmother told me about a young man who had visited her to ask questions about her pottery and the traditions of the Catawba potters. I sat in her kitchen and listened to her tell the story of the young man from the University of South Carolina who had "discovered" a wonderful art form, Catawba pottery.
Dr. Blumer became a frequent visitor to my grandmother's house, and his curiosity about Catawba pottery became almost an obsession, consuming his thoughts and most of his time. His genuine appreciation of the beauty, grace, and simplicity of Catawba pottery created a bridge between him and the usually reticent Catawba. Before long he was spending every spare moment on the Catawba Reservation, record ing conversations with not only the potters but other tribal members as well. With the limited funds of a doctoral candidate, with no grants or donations to help him, he dedicated himself to recording the history and art of the Catawba. And always he worked against a ticking clock, knowing that his most important resources were the elderly potters of the Catawba Nation.
Interestingly, Dr. Blumer's discriminating appreciation of Catawba pottery inspired my grandmother to produce her best work. She had learned to make pottery from her mother Margaret Harris, and from her grandmother Martha Jane Harris, who is considered to be the best of the Catawba potters. Following the example of such accomplished potters, my grandmother made pottery that was consistently excellent. Nonetheless, I can remember, as I helped her fire pots in a shallow pit in her back yard, her excitement when a pot "burned" particularly well. Her respect for Dr. Blumer's knowledge of Catawba pottery was such that she would often point to her best piece and say, "I'll bet Dr. Blumer will buy that one." And he often did, even when buying a pot meant making a choice between owning that pot and having enough food to eat the next week. He understood that each piece of pottery was unique, that it never would be duplicated by the artist or by the fire. One piece of pottery at a time, he carefully and lovingly built a collection of Catawba pottery that is unsurpassed.
When the Catawba Nation sued the state of South Carolina to settle a 150-year-old land claim, Dr. Blumer provided support in the form of historical research, and when the Catawba Nation was awarded a $50 million settlement in 1993, no one was happier for the Catawba than Dr. Blumer.
That tangible support is typical of Dr. Blumer's relationship with the Catawba. During his early visits to the reservation, Dr. Blumer found that the Catawba traditionally learned pottery making at the knee of a family elder. His concern that too few of the younger tribal members were taking up the craft led him to encourage the older potters to teach pottery-making classes. Thanks to his efforts, a revival of interest in the making of pottery followed, and many of today's Ca-tawba potters can look back to those classes and remember their own beginnings as potters.
Dr. Blumer's knowledge of the Catawba traditions and his love of Catawba pottery made him the perfect ambassador for the Catawba Nation. He never refused any request for information about Catawba pottery, and he never passed up an opportunity to make others aware of the treasure to be found in northern South Carolina. He graciously accepted the title of Catawba Tribal Historian and continued to donate his time to the promotion of Catawba pottery. It was through his ef forts that my grandmother was awarded posthumously the National Endowment for the Arts "Folk Heritage Award" in 1996. It would be difficult indeed to find a Catawba potter who has not benefited from his encouragement and patronage.
And now, with this book, Thomas Blumer benefits not only the Catawba but also anyone interested in our history or our art. It can truthfully be said that no one knows more about the history of the Catawba people than Thomas Blumer. And certainly no one knows more about our pottery. Catawba Indian Pottery: The Survival of a Folk Tradition organizes and disseminates his unique knowledge of every aspect of Catawba Indian pottery. It brings together the experience and knowledge of countless Catawba potters, many of whose voices have been silenced over the last 30 years. Dr. Blumer's decades of academic research complements those voices by giving depth and perspective to the personal recollections of contemporary Catawba.
Through his life's work with the Catawba Indian Nation of South Carolina, Thomas Blumer has become something of a Catawba treasure himself. Future generations will be indebted to Dr. Blumer for his lifelong dedication to understanding and recording the art and history of the "People of the River."
William Harris Catawba Indian Nation
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