The teaching of the Catawba pottery tradition is guarded jealously.
The Indians have always been determined to keep their tribal possession in their hands. One of the major concerns among the potters regarding tribal-based research for this book was that non-Catawba might learn Catawba construction methods. It was finally decided that pottery making is widely taught at every educational level, and Catawba methods would be of little interest to outsiders (Samuel Beck, interview, 3 May 1977, BC).
Most Catawba live in extended families. Although pottery was seldom the only source of income, pottery making has always been of great spiritual and economic importance. At any given time, several members of a pottery-making family can be engaged in making pottery. Under ideal extended family conditions, small children watch the entire process from preparing the clay to building, scraping, rubbing, decorating, and, finally, burning the pottery. Learning to make Catawba pottery is a long process. The fixed construction methods of more than 100 shapes must be learned. At the beginning of the twentieth century, for most children their only outings were visits to the clay holes and peddling trips. Clay was an integral part of their restricted lives. Children absorbed the tradition slowly and joined in the various processes as they felt inclined or as their assistance was required. When possible, this educational pattern is followed today.
On occasion, non-Indians are permitted to join the ranks of the potters and are taught the full range of the tradition. Recent examples include Mae Blue, Hattie George, Dorothy Harris, and Maggie Harris. According to oral tradition, these four women are the only non-Indian potters of the twentieth century not censured by tribal law. Presumably, non-Indians who married into the tribe, before these women, were taught pottery making but no memory of their work remains. Today, of necessity, because some of the potters are married to non-Indians, their spouses are often knowledgeable of the tradition, especially in digging clay and burning pottery. The cottage industry nature of the Catawba way requires that the entire family participate in digging the clay, burning the pottery, and even marketing the wares. Some of the non-Indians occasionally dabble in clay, but tribal and federal Indian law will not allow them to sign and sell their work as Catawba (Public Law 101-644).
The Catawba also carefully draw the line between demonstrations and teaching. If demonstrations come close to teaching, the potters will pull back. This happened most recently in 1994 when the Schiele Museum wanted the potters to demonstrate the burning process. The proposal made the Catawba feel cautious. They felt that if an outsider could burn a pot, such a person could also make Catawba style pots and sell them. The demonstrations were cancelled. Today, it has been reported that potters who demonstrate as artists-in-residence through the South Carolina Arts Commission teach the entire process from building to burning pottery, without dispute. This lack of a negative reaction may be tempered by the realization that it is very difficult to demonstrate the burning process in a traditional educational setting such as a school.
As a rule, the learning process is so gradual that some potters are at a loss for words to describe when and how they learned. For instance, Edith Brown declared, "No one taught me. I just sat and watched" (Edith Brown, interview, 21 April 1977, BC). Others wax nostalgic when thinking of those formative years. "We played as children, and we'd see them—how they made [the pottery]. I just picked it up. I loved to play in the dirt anyway, in red mud and stuff like that. I started off playing with red mud. I made little wee round pots about like that, and we'd try to put little handles on them and little legs. Then [later on] we got so we got clay" (Jennie Brindle, interview, 11 August 1982, BC).
Although Jennie Brindle and Edith Brown abridged their learning process to the simplest of terms, learning to make Catawba pottery is not easy. Clay cannot to be played with. Clay is too valuable, too difficult to obtain. Children, while they must learn, also must be kept from ruining the work of their elders.
I guess [I learned] after I got up around seven or eight years old. You know something, they wouldn't let us mess with clay because we would put trash in it—dirt, and they didn't—my mama and my grandma, either one—like no dirty clay. . . . [When] I got up seven or eight years old, I made little ole things. . . . I remember I made a cat one time. I thought that was the cutest little thing. I can see that cat yet. You know how a cat will lay with its little arms folded like this. I made that little cat, and its tail was curled around its little feet. . . . I made that little cat, and I rubbed it and it burnt solid red. You've seen these cats that are solid red. . . . It looked just like one of those. I kept that thing for a long long time. I don't know what ever happened to it. . . . We used to make little chickens, little old ducks. And we played with them after we burned them. . . . We didn't [decorate]. . . . We were too small to fool with anything like that. [They were] afraid we would leave the [the tools] out and lose them. They had a set of tools, and you didn't play with them as kids do now with things. (Georgia Harris, interview, 20 March 1980, BC)
The potters make use of every morsel of clay. Hands that were capable of making something as sophisticated as a cat effigy were put right to work. Artemis Harris, for one, was forced to enlist the aid of all her children as soon as they were capable of working in clay. Wesley Harris recalled gathering wood for his mother and staying up all night rubbing pottery for the North Carolina mountain trade (Wesley Harris, interview, 10 May 1977, BC). Blanche Bryson, another one of Artemis Harris's children, recalls that life at home from the age of ten was dominated by rubbing pottery, and she grew to dislike the work (Blanche Bryson, interview, 15 May 1977, BC). Frances Wade, who worked like an adult when she was yet a child, provides yet a third example. She gathered wood, beat the clay, and rubbed as many as a hundred pots in one day (Frances Wade, interview, 18 January 1977, BC). Peggy Harris's experience had a modern touch, for she had to rub a fixed number of pots before she could go out and play (Peggy Harris, interview, 15 March 1977, BC). All of these negative memories stem from the stress of making pottery for the North Carolina mountain trade.
The learning process followed by some potters is well documented. Nola Campbell, for instance, spent her early years watching her mother Maggie Harris and others make pottery. After her brother Douglas married, she came under the influence of Georgia Harris. Nola was a quick learner and artistically inclined. Her teacher, Georgia Harris recalls:
She was maybe 10 years old, maybe 11. . . . Whenever I made any pottery, I just let her fool on the little pieces first. Then she learned to rub . . . and she got to playing with the clay with Floyd, making little old pieces for him. . . . Well, I would even sell them for them when I'd go up here to [North Carolina]. . . . I'd take these little pieces along. Maybe she'd have five or six, and I'd get the money and give it to them. But then Nola got to making it. . . . I used to tell her to make them. I used to straighten them for her . . . and let her rub them, and then take them off and sell them for her. I used to make five or six dollars going up there for Nola. . . . She didn't get about 10 or 15 cents [each] for what she made. They were little pieces. Sometimes I'd have five dollars and wouldn't tell nobody, and I'd buy cloth. . . . I would make her clothes for her. I'd buy cloth—buy a pair of shoes and things like that and bring it back. . . . Nola went right for it. . . . Every time she knew I was going up she'd have a little batch to give me, and I'd take them and sell them. . . . Nola never made big pieces for a long time, a good while. (Georgia Harris, interview, 25 March 1980, BC)
Catawba children discover quickly that pottery is a way to make money and they are often eager to learn. Georgia Harris capitalized on this desire in Nola Campbell, and her student saw that pottery could be an important source of income. For this young girl, it was the only source of money. Mrs. Harris's young son Floyd was also impressed by this aspect of the trade and was eager to benefit. Nola Campbell became his pottery source:
Well, Floyd wanted me to make some little pots so he could have some to sell whenever she [Georgia Harris] went to sell hers, and I told him. I said, "I can't make those things," and she said, "Yes you can. You got to learn somewhere." She said, "Start and learn to make them." So I did. I tried. I'd ask her to shape them up. . . . You got to learn, so I did learn, and I made him I guess about three dozen. He had that many little ole tiny ugly things to take up there and sell, and he sold them. I don't know what he got for them, and then the last year in school . . . I made enough to buy my clothes to finish school, and she [Georgia Harris] bought my shoes for me, bought my dresses, things like that. . . . So that told me. She said, "You just go ahead and make them and I'll sell them, and I'll buy your clothes for you. She knew what size clothes I wore anyway. (Nola Campbell, interview, 2 March 1981, BC)
Later, when Nola Campbell had her own family, her potter y-making skills reached maturity. This transition was only made possible by Georgia Harris's tutoring. Today the work of these two potters is remarkably similar.
A potter like Florence Wade emphasizes the complexity of the learning experience. When asked for documentation, she brought many people into her perspective. Perhaps this is the truest picture we can have of the Catawba learning process. The potters like to work together and enjoy comparing building techniques, though there is very little variation. "I started making when I was ten years old. Daddy died when I was eight. They showed me how and I watched too. I'd say, 'I can build them,' and then I'd try. I watched them make wedding jugs. That was my specialty. I couldn't do too much with gypsy pots. The legs wouldn't sit right. I could really make wedding jugs, and I loved to make canoes with heads" (Florence Wade, interview, 15 April 1977, BC).
During this period the David Adam Harris family was hard pressed to make ends meet. The family pooled all its resources to work for the tourist trade in North Carolina. It was only natural that young Florence was expected to help:
Mama, Dorothy Price, did the trimming. Jennie Brindle made them. She'd turn them out like a machine. I rubbed the pottery. Jennie and Mama built and I rubbed. Then I learned. I shaped them up and they'd straighten them out for me. Later I rubbed for Georgia Harris. Her father, Jim, and my father, David, were brothers. I also watched Georgia Harris and Sallie Beck. I remember those loving cups and long necked pitchers. I was also around Fannie [Canty] and Edith [Brown]. Fannie made big scalloped bowls. I can visualize them right now. Fannie made big pots. I was in high school, and she lived on Adam Street, and she'd be working in clay. I'd watch her after school. I'd go there and wait for my ride, and sometimes I'd rub two or three before my ride would come for me. I also watched Sara Lee [Sanders-Ayers]. She lived right behind here. I practically stayed down there with her. (Florence Wade, interview, 15 April 1977, BC)
Finally assuming full responsibility for pottery manufacture often came with family responsibilities. As each potter was questioned, the story was much the same. Isabelle George, for instance, did not begin to bring the full impact of her years of learning into focus until she left home (Isabelle George, interview, 22 March 1983, BC). The same may be said of Catherine Canty, who never built pottery until she had her own family. "I did rub them. Mama never let me help to make them when I stayed at home" (Catherine Canty, interview, 2 March 1981, BC).
Although this family-based learning process continues, contemporary Catawba face a world where the family is not as closely knit as it once was. Today, children are taken to day care centers at a very young age. They have fewer opportunities to watch grandma or anyone else work in clay. Young mothers are most often employed off the reservation. These women, when they return home after hours of wage earning, face household chores. The pottery tradition suffers in such situations. Fortunately, the potters and the Catawba Cultural Preservation Project have been aware of this problem and steps are being taken to solve it, at the family level and by the Project. From all appearances, the Catawba potters have entered the third millennium with a large number of master potters of unusual skill, and all of them teach the tradition. The modern solutions are, however, revolutionary to the Ca-tawba way.
The teaching innovations began in 1976 when the Executive Committee, working under a state grant, offered its first formal pottery class. Although it appeared to be a new effort, this class was actually the culmination of years of research. The Catawba had long recognized the need for formal teaching. In 1962, Gladys Thomas requested that classes be held as part of the educational program linked to the division of tribal assets (Thomas 1962). This request was never acted upon. Over the years, various tribal members continued to request formal teaching, but it took almost 15 years to realize the dream. Even then many of the highly conservative potters were far from happy with the results.
In 1974, not long after Gilbert Blue succeeded Albert Sanders as Chief of the Catawba, momentum for such an effort increased. This impetus came, in part, from the 1973 pottery exposition and sale organized by Steven Baker that brought Catawba pottery prices more in line with those received by Native American craftsmen in other parts of the country. As prices rose and orders increased, the few potters who were active had difficulty meeting the demands of the new market (D. Blue to T. Blumer, letter, 1974, BC). Others saw the tradition as being cost effective and returned to building pots in their retirement. They began to see Catawba pottery in positive economic terms for their children and grandchildren.
By 1975 Chief Blue and Roger Trimnal obtained state funding for classes; however, problems abounded from the very beginning. The state of South Carolina insisted that a non-Indian teacher be employed (Virginia Trimnal, interview, 6 February 1977, BC). The Catawba balked at accepting any outsider. Their contention was that their own community possessed numerous master potters who had hundreds of years of collective experience making and selling Catawba pottery. Their argument was a good one. Only Catawba pottery methods would be taught. Eventually a compromise was reached. The state would provide one qualified non-Catawba potter, and the Catawba would provide five teachers from their own ranks (Fred Sanders, interview, 8 February 1977, BC). Unfortunately, the Indians considered the state-appointed instructor as an overseer and, therefore, an affront.
Some of the potters boycotted the classes entirely. Principle among this group was Doris Blue who, ironically, had long urged that classes be taught:
No, I didn't go up there. I just know about it. But they . . . had to have a supervisor of something from Columbia, and this man that was over the pottery class also taught ceramics. That was one reason I wouldn't go teach. I didn't think an outsider should come in and tell me how to teach Catawba pottery. He wouldn't know anything about Catawba pottery. He wouldn't know how it should be made and wouldn't know anything about it. But until the [Indians] agreed to let him supervise or, I don't know exactly the word they had for it [the class would not be approved]. He came up though, and he was over the class. And they had this one Catawba lady taught in the morning and one in the afternoon, and about two and a half hours in the morning and two and a half hours in the afternoon. Then later he had a ceramics class, and he taught ceramics. To me that was kind of confusing—to have the class working on two projects: the ceramics and the pottery. But like he would let them go ahead with the pottery for a certain length of time and then the ceramics later. They combined all of them in one day. . . . I didn't teach. (Doris Blue, interview, 24 March 1980, BC)
Despite the controversy, a strong Catawba teaching faculty was organized. The group included some of the best potters the community could offer: Sallie Beck, Edith Brown, Nola Campbell, Bertha Harris, and Georgia Harris. Collectively, these potters brought over two centuries of experience to their students. They agreed to participate under the direction of Frances Wade. The controversial outsider was yet to be selected. The Indians hoped the state of South Carolina would not hire this unwelcome teacher. They felt that when the powers in Columbia saw the strength of their teaching staff, the outsider would be forgotten. The Indians were very wrong. Although never publicly stated, the parties in Columbia did not have confidence in the Indians' determination to follow through with the classes. In South Carolina's eyes someone directly responsible to the officials in Columbia was needed as an overseer.
The state of South Carolina also promised to help the Catawba revive their market. The state would sponsor demonstrations and sales as part of an aggressive statewide promotional program (Fred Sanders, interview, 8 February 1977, BC). Plans did not go well in Columbia. The teacher selected by the state was a recent graduate of the School of Fine Arts at the University of South Carolina. Complications continued, for the South Carolina Arts Commission felt that someone with higher qualifications and more practical experience was needed and could have been found. The Commission protested and withdrew from the project (Edward Furschgott, interview, 1 July 1977, BC). The art school graduate awarded the position of supervisory instruc tor of the Catawba Pottery Class of 1976 was Robert (Corky) Miranda. He knew nothing of the controversy. Influenced by the liberalism that shook campuses all across the country at that time, Mr. Miranda felt he could identify with the Indians and they would welcome him. In fact, he had long tried to identify with American Indians through his Hispanic heritage (John Davis, interview, 17 May 1977, BC). In the meantime the students were selected:
Keith Brown Anne Sanders Morris
Larry Brown Denise Nichols
Louise Bryson Margaret Oliver
Ronald Canty Alton Potts
Connie Collins Randall Sanders
Peggy Harris Jimmy Simmers
Debbie Howard Bruce Wade Billie Ann McKellar
(Denise Nichols, interview, 1 March 1977, BC)
Eligibility for enrolling in the class required tribal membership and financial need. This latter requirement created additional controversy. Many interested would-be potters, such as Blanche Bryson and Caro-leen Sanders to name only two, were turned away because their household incomes were too high (Blanche Bryson, interview, 15 May 1977; Nola Campbell, interview, 15 March 1977, BC). The Catawba do not have to look far for controversy when it comes to their pottery tradition.
All of the students had prior knowledge of the tradition. Most of them had been deprived of a full knowledge because of the changing Catawba lifestyle, which revolved around public work. For instance, Peggy Harris's mother, Edna Brown, worked in clay for most of her life, but Peggy Harris had only limited exposure to pottery construction methods. "When I was little, they all worked and then they just quit. At that time, I rubbed pots, but I had never finished one up. . . . The first time I actually built my own pots was when I went to the class, and I was happy to go and have the opportunity to learn because the pottery was dying out" (Peggy Harris, interview, 15 March 1977, BC).
Keith and Larry Brown claimed similar exposure, in spite of the fact that the Brown family included numerous potters. Louise Bryson's mother, Lula Beck, was a potter, and Louise grew up watching her mother prepare vessels for the North Carolina mountain trade. Connie Collins was a granddaughter of the renowned Arzada Sanders. Billie Anne McKellar had two master potters in her close family: Catherine Canty and Arzada Sanders. Anne Morris and Randall Sanders both grew up watching their mother Eva Sanders work in clay. Denise Nichols spent her childhood with her mother Alberta Ferrell, who was very involved in the North Carolina trade.
The classes were held from June to August 1976. Robert Miranda's unfamiliarity with either the Catawba or their tradition posed an immediate problem. Rather than learn from Indian potters who had vast experience behind them, he spoke of improving the tradition. The Ca-tawba balked at breaking the ancient Catawba way (Robert Miranda, interview, 1 July 1977, BC). Some Catawba, on the other hand, had never seen clay treated like cookie dough and were fascinated (Peggy Harris, interview, 15 March 1977, BC). They found the use of a rolling pin to produce slabs of clay comical (Billie Anne McKellar, interview, 15 March 1977, BC). Catawba techniques do not employ the use of large sheets of clay. The original intent of the project was to teach and preserve ancient Catawba techniques, and the students had enrolled to learn how to make the pottery of their ancestors. Miranda never realized that his forced presence was merely one more humiliation served on the Catawba by South Carolina officials (Frances Wade, interview, 6 April 1977, BC). Some of the potters also feared that Miranda would learn Catawba techniques and begin to make and sell Catawba pottery. As a result, an effort was made to restrict his access to clay. He was, at least officially, kept from visiting the clay holes (Billie Anne McKellar, interview, 11 February 1977, BC).
In the Class of 1976, a total of 15 young Catawba were taught the rudiments of the tradition. The results were mixed. On the negative side, some of the students did not make pottery after graduation even though the tradition needed the 15 young potters and their vitality. On the positive side, several potters of great potential emerged from the class. Louise Beck Bryson was not the star pupil in the group, but she immediately established herself as a hard-working potter. By the end of her short four-year career, she was making museum quality pieces and was counted as a master potter. She sold her work as fast as she could build it, finish it, and burn it.
Louise Bryson had a tremendous way with her customers and could sell anything she burned. For instance, on one occasion she broke a pitcher. All that remained was the handle and a reduced part of the bowl; the lip and much of the upper part of the vessel were gone. Rather than destroy the vessel, she finished off the rim and burned it. When a pothunter appeared at her door, he inquired about this particular vessel. It was well made and finished to perfection, as was typical of Louise Bryson's work. She laughed and told him it was a Catawba urinal, and he signed a check. Louise had many a laugh out of the expe rience, and today the man owns a signed piece of historically important Catawba pottery. Unfortunately, by 1980, the ravages of diabetes hampered her work, and Louise Bryson was forced into an early retirement.
The Class of 1976 had other success stories. Billie Anne McKellar continued to make a high quality ware. Peggy Harris continued to work with her mother, Edna Brown. By 1994, Keith Brown emerged as a pipe maker of reputation, and an occasional pot made by Bruce Wade appears on the market. In 1992, Denise Nichols sold pottery at the annual Yap Ye Iswa Festival.
Almost as soon as the Class of 1976 ended, interested Catawba began to lobby for a second series of classes. Efforts were made to obtain funding. With none forthcoming, Fred Sanders, then the Assistant Chief and the eventual founder of the Catawba Cultural Preservation Project, turned to a grass roots effort (Blumer 1987a). Volunteers dug a supply of clay, and teachers volunteered for two sets of classes for adults and children. Nola Campbell taught the adults, and Evelyn George and Catherine Canty taught the children's classes. The following Indians made up the adult class:
Gail Blue Jones Jennifer Blue Travis Blue Kevin Brewton Mohave Sanders Bryson Blanche Harris Bryson Sandra Carpenter Calvin George
The children's class included:
Sheryl Gordon Roberta Sanders Honeycutt Elizabeth Plyler Brenda Sanders Sigmon Colette Williams Phyllis Beck Williams Vivian Sanders Williford
Jason Beck Jennifer Beck Kim Beck Andrew Blue Chad Canty
Erin Canty Jered Canty De Ann George Shane Pittman Becky Trimnal
This class produced more positive results, perhaps because the market for pottery had changed dramatically for the better between 1976 and 1987. With a better showing than the Class of 1976, six of the 15 adults continued to work in clay: Blanche Harris Bryson, Gail Blue Jones, Sheryl Gordon, Travis Blue, and Elizabeth Plyler. Of these six, Mohave Bryson, Blanch Bryson, and Elizabeth Plyler continue to work in clay to this day. Elizabeth Plyler has emerged as a master potter. Mohave Bryson reportedly is a skilled potter but none of her work has been examined.
Andrew Blue, from the children's class, continued to work with his aunt, Mildred Blue, for a number of years. The progress of the other students from this class is unknown.
A second innovation developed out of the Class of 1987. Tutorials were funded by grant money from the McKissick Museum at the University of South Carolina. These lessons were arranged on a one potter to one student basis. This experiment proved to be very effective. Nola Campbell taught two sets of such tutorials, one with her daughter Della Harris Oxendine and another with Blanche Harris Bry-son. Mildred Blue continued to work with her nephew Andrew Blue through this program. Catherine Canty taught Susan George, and Helen Beck taught Colette Williams, a great-granddaughter. Others participated in this grassroots effort. More importantly, this approach began to work on its own in a limited way. The young potters grew accustomed to approaching the senior potters and asking them for lessons regarding specific vessels. Gail Jones and Faye George Greiner, for instance, spent time with Earl and Viola Robbins. Earl Robbins also taught a number of young potters how to make pipe molds. Interestingly enough, none of these efforts involved an exchange of money between the experienced potter and the student.
Today the Catawba count a large number of active young potters who have not benefited from either formal classes or tutorials. Some have emerged as master potters in their own right. These students are making pottery on a regular basis. Their work ranges from awkward trade ware to vessels any museum would be proud to put behind glass. From all appearances, these new potters are learning by the old traditional way, which speaks well for the vitality of the Catawba tradition as it enters the third millennium. At least two of these young potters actively seek tutorials from senior potters or those who are a bit more experienced. On occasion, a senior potter will even seek advice from some of the new generation master potters.
Was this article helpful?