Preparing The Clay


The wooden pestle once used to beat the clay was abandoned in the first quarter of the twentieth century. The boards and shallow traylike receptacle used for beating clay, photographed by Harrington in 1903 and recalled by Doris Blue, have also gone the way of the pestle. The old beating process was replaced by window wire used to strain the clay and thus remove impurities. Some of the Indians stretch this wire on a wooden frame. Fletcher Beck made such a frame for his wife Sallie Beck. It was about two-and-a-half feet square (Sallie Beck, interview, 21 April 1977, BC). Earl Robbins uses a similar wooden frame with window wire stretched over it. Many of the Indians do not bother to build a wooden frame but resort to a loose piece of window wire bent to hold a rough bowl shape to strain the clay.

Building Pots

When Harrington worked with the Brown family, the potters worked while sitting on the ground. They built their vessels on squares of board held on their laps. These are called lap or pan boards. Doris Blue explained their use: "We have never used a wheel. . . . We just use a—shape them up with our hands. We just use little boards—square boards or round. Whatever we find made out of a plank and we call them pan boards. Some of the Indians call them lap boards that you put your pottery on and shape it up. That's easy to set someplace to dry, and when that piece of pottery is dry you just lift it off and use the piece of board for another piece of pottery" (Doris Blue, interview, 5 March 1981, BC). The lap board has survived because it is technically necessary. It allows the potter to turn the vessel and inspect its shape. The vessel can also be left on this board until it is strong enough to be moved without distorting its shape. Today the Catawba usually work sitting on a chair rather than on the ground when they make pottery, but the lap board has survived this change in work habit. The lap board still rests on the potter's lap or even on a low tabletop. The number of lap boards vary according to the volume of pottery produced by the potter. In 1977, Georgia Harris had eight pine lap boards roughly one foot square. Reola Harris had three pine boards roughly the same size. Almost any square of any wood, even plywood, is acceptable, and the potter will make additional boards as they are needed.

Tools used in building pots are simple. Those that have not retained their aboriginal substance have at least retained their aboriginal shape. For instance, originally the Indians modeled the inside of the vessel with freshwater mussel shells that Harrington mentioned (Harrington 1908). Today the potters continue to use shells, but these are often clam shells found on ocean beaches. When the Catawba gained access to coconuts, they found a natural use for the sturdy shell. Martha Jane Harris cut a modeling tool from such a shell, and Georgia Harris used it. She inherited the coconut shell modeler from her grandmother in 1936 (Georgia Harris, interview, 1977, BC). This same general shape may be improvised from a number of contemporary kitchen tools and other objects found in the home. Jennie Brindle liked to model her pottery with snuff can lids. Many Catawba pottery tool collections contain such lids. Another favorite is any large spoon. It is common for the potters to use corncobs to roughly obliterate the rolls on their vessels before they actually begin the modeling of the interior.

When Harrington observed the Brown family, they employed river cane knives to cut the paste and do some preliminary scraping on a pot that had not set completely. In the 1930s, F. G. Speck presented such a knife to Joffre Coe (Joffre Coe, interview, 1984, BC). No Catawba potter has been observed using a cane knife during the last 25 or more years, and no examined contemporary potter's tool kit contained such a knife. Instead, the potters use case knives and small pen knives to trim or scrape a rough vessel. Knives or simple sticks are used to bore holes for appendages.

Rubbing Rocks

Perhaps no Catawba tool is treasured more than rubbing rocks. Many of these burnishing tools can be traced through several generations of owners. Most of the potters proudly recite the histories of their favorite rocks. When Douglas S. Brown interviewed Sallie Gordon, this potter claimed that one of her rocks was 600 years old (Brown 1956:217). While the potter was undoubtedly pulling a number out of her hat, some of her rubbing rocks had probably been in her family for several generations, for Sallie Gordon had most certainly inherited some tools from her mother, Margaret Brown. In turn, Margaret may have inherited at least some of her rubbing rocks from her mother and grandmother.

Doris Blue traced her most treasured burnishing stones from her great-grandmother, Rhoda Harris, and her mother, Rosie Wheelock. Doris Blue also had some rocks she had found (Doris Blue, interview, m i ^^H

Figure 6. Rubbing rocks used by Doris Wheelock Blue. (Photo by Thomas J. Blumer)

5 March 1981, BC). In general, each potter's collection of tools can be documented by the potter/owners. When Rhoda Harris died in 1918, her tools were divided between her surviving daughters, Susannah Owl and Betsy Harris (Doris Blue, interview, 5 March 1981, BC). Then when Betsy Harris died, her tools went to Rosie Wheelock and eventually to Doris Blue (Evening Herald, 29 October 1921:1). In 1985, Mildred Blue, of the fifth documented generation, inherited these tools. When Mildred died in 1997, these same tools were distributed within the family. In all likelihood, some of Rhoda Harris's tools came from her mother and grandmother (eighteenth-century Catawba), but this information has not been preserved in family tradition.

Some potters do not have rubbing rocks of any great historical value. One such potter was Catherine Canty. All of her tools, including her rubbing rocks, were those she had obtained herself (Catherine Canty, interview, 28 January 1977, BC). Louise Bryson was also in this category. There is a modern twist to obtaining rubbing rocks. Today it is not unusual for a potter to find a good stone in a rock shop, tourist shop, or even among the pebbles used to landscape a bank or restaurant garden. Georgia Harris obtained one of her rubbing rocks in a tourist shop in California, and she also purchased some on the Cherokee Reservation (Georgia Harris, interview, 19 March 1980, BC). Faye Greiner's rocks also originated in rock shops.

Arzada Sanders

Figure 6. Rubbing rocks used by Doris Wheelock Blue. (Photo by Thomas J. Blumer)

Some new rocks can also have interesting histories, and their stories are told with pride. For instance, Arzada Sanders often told how she found one of her best rubbing rocks when she "was 10 years old. I went down on a horse to the river bottoms and found it. I was terrible to ride a horse" (Arzada Sanders, interview, 25 January 1977, BC). Bertha Harris was given some treasured rocks by Martha Jane Harris, but she also fondly recalled hunting rocks with Martha Jane: "We used to go fishing on the sand bars—places where the water would go down. Martha Jane Harris would be along and she'd say, 'This will be a good rubbing rock'" (Bertha Harris, interview, 12 March 1981, BC).

Rubbing rocks often become central to family disputes. These problems stem from a desire to possess heirlooms of historical importance. Under the best of conditions, families manage to avoid these problems through cooperation. When Margaret Harris passed away, her daughters Eliza Gordon and Georgia Harris simply divided her tools without dispute (Georgia Harris, interview, 19 March 1980, BC). Then when Martha Jane Harris died in 1936, the same two potters divided their second inheritance of tools (Georgia Harris, interview, 19 March 1980, BC). However, problems arose when both Eliza Gordon and her daughter Gladys Thomas died. Unfortunately a large and historically important cache of tools became the property of a non-Indian who had no appreciation for them. To this day the family laments the loss of Eliza Gordon's tools (Georgia Harris, interview, 19 March 1980, BC). It is not uncommon for family members to put pressure on elderly potters to make decisions regarding the disposition of their pottery tools.

All is not seriousness with Catawba rubbing rocks. The potters tell some charming tales about particular rocks. Georgia Harris relates one such story:

Bill [Harris] wants that rock. He says, "Grandma, that rock has history behind it, and I want that rock." I've got it yet. It was a rock, I guess it was about that [six inches] long. I believe my sister [Eliza Gordon] . . . had the other piece of it. . . . The chickens were fighting, and Epp Harris was sitting somewhere rubbing. . . . He hollered at them, and they didn't quit fighting, so he throwed the rock at them . . . and broke the rock half in two. It was slick on both ends. My grandmother kept it and used it, . . . and I use it. (Georgia Harris, interview, 19 March 1980, BC)

This treasured rock disappeared from Georgia Harris's pottery-making tools before she died. The family laments its loss (William Harris, interview, January 2001, BC).

The loss of a valued possession always causes consternation. Since rubbing rocks are nearly indistinguishable from other rocks, they are easily lost. Years after the event, Georgia Harris still recalled losing one of her grandmother's prized rocks: "I had a white rock that belonged to my grandmother, and it was about this [three inches] big, and when we stayed up there where the chemical plant is, I lost it. I hated that I lost it. It was slick all over. You could take it and lay it inside of a pot like this and just work it like that with your hands, and just rub it cause it was slick all over it had been used so long" (Georgia Harris, interview, 22 March 1980, BC). In this case the rock was treasured both as an heirloom and because it had a superlative shape and fit the hand easily. Although the loss had occurred over 20 years earlier, the pain had not abated. In the wake of heightened interest surrounding the archaeological survey currently being conducted on the reservation, the Indians are increasingly watching the ground as they do their yard work. In the summer of 1994, Steve McKellar found a fine rubbing rock in his garden. Its loss must have been lamented by its former owner, possibly a member of the David Adam Harris family, for they had occupied this tribal land allotment before the McKellars obtained it.

Bone Awls

At times even the best rubbing rocks cannot be used to rub small hard-to-reach parts of a vessel, such as around handles. Originally, the potters used the smooth end of a bone or antler awl for this purpose. When Harrington interviewed the Browns, this pragmatic family was using ordinary bone toothbrush handles in the place of bone awls. Harrington failed to recognize these tools for what they were. Today, since toothbrush handles are no longer made of bone, some of the younger potters, in following the tradition, resort to the use of plastic toothbrush handles. The end burnishing results seem to be the same. Also, some of the potters have recently turned to deer antlers; this has happened out of availability rather than an attempt to make the tool kit appear more Indian in its contents. More recently, Earl Robbins discovered that fine bone awls can be fashioned out of the leg bone of a cow. These bones are easily obtained from local butcher shops. He has since become a tribal source for such awls, which may very well become tomorrow's heirlooms.


The Catawba often incise designs on their vessels. The best known but not the only tool used for this purpose is the shoe buttonhook. Other tools used are the ridged edges of large coins, twisted wire, knives, nails, or hairpins. Any sharp object found about the house will suffice. Once used for incising, these items usually become a regular part of the potter's tool kit. The importance of the designs used are discussed in chapter 10.

Figure 7. Incising tools used by Doris Wheelock Blue. (Photo by Thomas J. Blumer)

Storing Tools

The potters keep their pottery tools in a variety of containers including coffee cans, tin canisters, shoe boxes, cigar boxes, cloth bags, and, of course, tool boxes purchased in hardware stores. Sarah Harris used a river cane basket to store her tools (Acquisitions File, 1980, BC).

Miniature Tools

Those potters who occasionally make miniatures use the tools they have at hand. Edwin Campbell, who works almost exclusively in miniatures, relies on very small tools that enable him to make his very small pieces. His tools are merely small versions of the large tools used by his fellow potters.

Squeeze Molds

Non-Indians seldom see the squeeze molds. Most of these are used in making pipes. The origin of this interesting device is hazy at best, and the full story will probably never be known except in very general terms. An indication that the squeeze mold is of long use among the Indians is the Catawba word wimisumpade'a. Pipe molds certainly entered the Catawba tradition while the Catawba language had the vi-

19th Century Clay Pipes
Figure 8. Squeeze molds made by Rhoda Harris in the nineteenth century. Property of the Doris Blue family. (Photo by Thomas J. Blumer)

tality needed to create a new word. Linguistic evidence points to a date well before the 1840 Treaty of Nation Ford (Barbara Heinemann, interview, 1994, BC).

There was a possibility that Harrington could have shed some light on the subject, but the ethnologist simply remarked that they were of "doubtful origin," that is not Indian. If he made any attempt to solve the mystery, he did not leave a record to this effect. This discrepancy is unfortunate. The older generation of potters, those born early in the nineteenth century, whom Harrington could have interviewed, certainly knew more about the antiquity of the squeeze molds than contemporary potters. It is possible that Harrington could have spoken to the very potter who introduced the squeeze mold to the Catawba tradition because the best-known and oldest mold makers were active at the time: Epp Harris, Martha Jane Harris, and Rhoda George Harris. As far as we know, Harrington had no contact with these potters, though they were alive when he visited the Nation.

Today, Catawba squeeze molds are regarded as authentic Catawba in design and manufacture. None of the potters are aware that they are adaptations of European models. In spite of the age of any molds currently in use, well-documented Indians made all but one-half mold found on the Betty and Bobby Blue allotment.

The origin of the squeeze mold remains a mystery. The most likely source of the Catawba pipe mold is the great clay pipe industry, which flourished from the Colonial period to the end of the nineteenth century. The manufacture of such pipes was first hurt by the unbreakable briarwood pipe and then ruined by the cigarette. With this shift in smoking habits, similar molds used by potteries throughout the country were stored away in attics or donated to museums, but the Catawba squeeze mold survived and is still in use. While it is true that the volume of the Catawba pipe trade was affected, the Catawba pipe tradition endured because the Indians have long catered to a large number of Indian arts and crafts collectors. These vessels are more Indian than a well-decorated pipe. Pipes are also expensive.

The best place to see the precursor of the Catawba squeeze mold is at Old Salem in North Carolina, or in Pamplin, Virginia. The oldest Catawba pipe molds currently in use differ from those of Pamplin and Old Salem only in their material of manufacture. The traditional commercial mold is made of pewter or brass, and the Catawba mold is made of Catawba clay. The Indians' molds are, however, exact copies of the parent molds. The earliest nineteenth-century Catawba squeeze molds even retain the holes that pierce the molds on the corners. In the original, these holes secured the molds in the pipe press. Although the holes were retained, the Catawba have never had a use for them. The Catawba equivalent of the pipe press is a pair of strong hands. In an effort to explain the existence of the holes, some of the Indians claim that the holes may be used to secure the molds in position while the molded clay sets up. This was supposedly done by putting sticks through the holes. In practice, however, the Indians immediately remove the pipe lugs from the mold and set them to one side to firm up. An experienced potter can produce many pipe lugs in one hour.

Historically, it is probably too late to determine precisely when and where the Catawba learned to make and use the squeeze mold. Pipes were of immense importance in early Colonial trade. After the founding of Charleston, the Indians had numerous opportunities to observe such molds in use. As non-Indian settlements approached and surrounded the Catawba Nation, such opportunities multiplied. Since the introduction of the molds to the Catawba tradition certainly occurred before 1840, Old Salem and Bethabara in North Carolina may be the place where the Indians first saw and learned to make squeeze molds.

The Moravian potteries date from the middle of the eighteenth century, a time when the Catawba were rapidly losing their political and military clout (Bivens 1972). It is well known that the Catawba were frequent visitors in the Moravian communities and were well received among the settlers there (Fries 1922). While the evidence gathered from these potteries is tempting, the oldest Catawba molds in use can only be dated from the last quarter of the nineteenth century. The molds used by Doris and Mildred Blue have been in the family for five generations, but these molds are a little over a century old. One can only observe that Rhoda Harris's oldest molds look like clay copies of the Moravian brass molds.

It is entirely possible that Rhoda Harris introduced the squeeze mold to the Catawba tradition. She was an adult at the time of the Treaty of Nation Ford, and it is conceivable that her first molds were made before the Treaty was signed in 1840. Family tradition has it that Rhoda's molds were made before the potter went blind, and this occurred in the 1890s (Doris Blue, interview, 21 March 1980, BC). The linguistic evidence points to an earlier date, probably before 1840. Another separate family tradition claims that Martha Jane Harris's mother had molds. These molds would have predated the Treaty of Nation Ford by many years and would also account for the Catawba language term.

Some technical evidence points to Rhoda Harris. She made a greater variety of pipe molds than any other potter. In addition to the standard shapes (Indian head, tomahawk, chicken comb, and plain pipe), she constructed technically complicated molds for the Catawba peace pipe (Doris Blue, interview, 24 March 1980, BC). The complexity of these latter molds assures Rhoda Harris's part in mold making.

The origin of the squeeze mold is enriched by those molds found by Betty and Bobby Blue. These molds were originally discarded by those who occupied the Blues' house site in the nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth century. Some are definitely the work of Martha Jane Harris. One part of a set of molds is much older and possibly was made by one of the Head family. This particular mold was made before 1883 when the Head family migrated to Colorado. This might be the oldest extant Catawba mold.

The only other Catawba molds that date from the nineteenth century are some of those made by Martha Jane and her husband Epp Harris (Furman Harris, interview, 19 April 1977, BC; Georgia Harris, interview, 19 March 1980, BC). These molds are interesting in that they show an evolution in style. The earliest molds are exact duplicates of those used at commercial potteries, such as that at Old Salem. However, Martha Jane Harris was a prolific mold maker, and she took shortcuts. As she grew more proficient in this exact craft, she realized that her molds did not have to mimic the parent molds in every way. For instance, her later molds do not have the pottery press holes in them, and she gradually abandoned the square shape made necessary by the pipe press. The new convex form created by Martha Jane Harris fit more easily in the potter's hands.

Most of the antique pipe molds in use today among the Indians can be attributed to Martha Jane Harris. To date, all the molds found in museum collections are also her work. According to Georgia Harris, all the Indians went to Martha Jane Harris if they needed a pair of molds. "Yes, she made a lot of molds for people. . . . She was the only one who made molds. I never did hear of anybody else making molds. They always asked Aunt Jane. That's what everybody called her. . . . She didn't charge them but a dollar for them" (Georgia Harris, interview, 30 March 1980, BC).

Making pipe molds is not difficult, but requires patience, as Harrington first described: "For making pipe molds an original model is shaped by hand, and after being burned in the usual way is greased and forced down into a flattened cake of fresh clay until half imbedded; then the surface of the cake is also greased to prevent sticking, and another cake is laid over and pressed down, forming a complete mold of the original pipe. When dry these half molds are removed from the model and burned; then they are ready for use" (see Figure 8) (Harrington 1908:405-406). These directions are accurate except for the use of grease. It is not known if Harrington's description is the result of demonstrations. According to Marvin George, making molds also requires far more devotion to detail than Harrington indicated. The most comprehensive description of this technical process is provided by Marvin George:

If you make up dough a long time, you can make good biscuits. If you work in pottery all the time and you get the knack of it, you can just make them. I made a set of headpieces—molds—for Edith [Brown] one time. I said, "I'm going to see if I can make them." I took me, well I had me a head made, a head burned. I took me a piece of clay about that big [pint], and I flattened it down [two inches thick]. I had two of them. I started working that head in there on both sides, and I got it half way, just where it would set up down to the nose, and I molded it. I made that mold. I kind of scraped it out and made it a little better, and I think I punched a hole through it and let it dry. . . . I stuck a hole down through two places in these, and I told Edith. I said, "Now here you have the head molds. You just burn them," and the last time I seen them she still had them. (Marvin George, interview, 23 March 1983, BC)

Following the death of Martha Jane Harris in 1936, it looked for a time as though the skill of mold making might become extinct among the Catawba. However, several young potters tried to produce their own molds and, in effect, planted the seeds for events that would occur many years later. Jennie Brindle made a set of molds for the plain pipe, and Earl Robbins made two sets of Indian head pipe molds when he was yet a teenager around 1920.

As has been the case since the Colonial period, the tradition is linked to making money. If pipes can be sold, the easiest way to produce them is with the squeeze mold. Sara Lee Ayers was reportedly an accomplished mold maker. All of her molds were made in support of her pottery business. The same is true of Earl Robbins, who possibly owns more molds than any other potter. He has also provided many of his contemporaries with molds. In the late 1980s, Georgia Harris also made a number of molds. And in 1993, Mildred Blue made several sets of miniature pipe molds. These enabled her to manufacture very small pipes quickly and efficiently. In anticipation of profiting from the rapidly growing market for Catawba pottery, several young potters have learned to make molds from Earl Robbins, including Gail Jones, Elizabeth Plyler, Faye Greiner, Donald Harris, and Monty Branham, to name a few.

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