The Cherokee Trade

After World War I, Americans became infatuated with the automobile. As the number of cars increased, the roads were improved, and the grid of our modern highway system began to take shape. It was not long before adventurous tourists began to straggle into the Great Smoky Mountains to visit the Cherokee Indians. Naturally, these individuals wanted mementos of Indian country. As the number of visitors grew, the enterprising Cherokee were quick to recognize and develop a market for arts and crafts. Numerous Cherokee made baskets and carvings in wood and stone that were eagerly snapped up by tourists (Blumer 1987^153-173). The Cherokee, however, had no potters. The Cherokee pottery tradition had ended when the last of the Katalstas stopped making pottery around 1900 (Blumer 1987^153-173). Fortunately, two master Catawba potters, Nettie Owl and Susannah Owl, who had married into the Cherokee tribe, were living at Cherokee. These two women endeavored to fill the early tourist needs at Cherokee.

The first shop to offer Indian arts and crafts to tourists was opened by Sampson Owl, Susannah Owl's husband, around 1920 (Blumer 1987b: 153-173). The efforts of these two women to fill tourist demands for pottery were short lived. Nettie Owl died in 1923 (The Record, 12 March 1923:1), and as Susannah Owl advanced in years, she found it increasingly difficult to keep her husband's shop stocked with pottery. Sampson Owl turned to Susannah's Catawba relatives to fill growing orders for Indian pottery. The first Catawba potters to benefit from the North Carolina mountain trade included Martha Jane Harris, Margaret Harris, and Rosie Wheelock. Beginning in 1925, Sampson Owl made regular trips to the Catawba Nation to purchase pottery. When Margaret

Arretine Ware
Figure 1. North Carolina trade ware made by Reola Harris for sale at Cherokee. (Photo by Thomas J. Blumer, 1977)

Harris died in 1926, he purchased the last pottery she had made (Georgia Harris, interviews, 20 March 1980; 24 March 1980, BC).

Sampson Owl was soon totally dependent on Catawba pottery, and he sought other potters to work for him (Doris Blue, interview, 24 March 1980, BC). In time, he developed a routine of driving his Model-T Ford to South Carolina where he packed the car to the hilt with Catawba wares. It was not long before other Cherokee opened up shops to handle the needs of tourists, not only at Cherokee, but also throughout the mountains of both North Carolina and Tennessee.

Soon the Catawba started to go to Cherokee on their own. Ervin and Eliza Gordon took advantage of the Cherokee trade early on (Furman Harris, interview, 1 March 1981, BC). They made the trip so frequently that this trade became their major source of income (Fewkes 1944:102). Soon nearly all the Catawba were trading with the tourist shops in the mountains. By trading in Cherokee, the Catawba earned income and also renewed old family alliances (Mae Blue, interview, 1982, BC). Yet, it was not long before enterprising Cherokee began to eye the Catawba tradition as something to copy (Blumer 1987^153-173).

At first, the wholesale prices offered by the merchants were fair, and the Catawba worked to provide the best pottery they could (Doris Blue, interview, 24 March 1980, BC). Doris Blue occasionally went to Chero kee to visit family there and always carried a load of pottery to a shop owner named Duncan. Georgia Harris filled orders for another shop near Cherokee:

If we wanted to go to the mountains, we'd ride. And that's how we got started. I sold my pots just after we got a car. . . . We found a place over here on, next to Hendersonville across the river. I found this woman, Mrs. Reed, and she bought from me all the time. Well, I didn't have to go all over the place selling pots. I'd just make them and carry them to her, and she'd take them. She bought just practically everything, whatever I'd make. She would buy all of it. Everything I would take. Once I made a set of dishes, the whole thing. She'd always—she had big ideas. She'd always ask me, "Can you make that?" And then I'd always have to make everything she wanted. (Georgia Harris, interview, 20 March 1980, BC)

In general, the Catawba would visit all the tourist shops between the Nation and the mountains. Often their pottery was sold before they reached Cherokee. As the shops built up their inventories, the potters who went frequently had difficulty selling their wares. Jennie Brindle recalled the situation: "The shop owners would buy by the lot, and we could start selling as soon as we got to the mountains. Sometimes we would have to go over to Gatlinburg to get it all sold, depending on who [which Catawba potter] had been over there before us" (Jennie Brindle, interview, 12 April 1977, BC). The partial list of places Jennie Brindle visited to peddle her wares is impressive: Greenville, Saluda, Tryon, Fletcher, Chimney Rock, Black Mountain, Bryson City, and Grandfather Mountain. Florence Wade remembers accompanying Jennie on these trips: "When I went with Jennie, she talked. She didn't have any problems getting rid of them, I guarantee you" (Florence Wade, interview, 15 March 1977, BC).

As the number of Catawba potters making vessels for this market increased, the shopkeepers began to take advantage of the Indians. Around 1960, Nola Campbell took what she estimated was 200 dollars worth of her pottery to Cherokee. This master potter of great skill was offered the meager price of 10 cents for each item. Knowing that she was producing museum quality vessels, she indignantly declared, "I didn't need to sell them that bad" (Nola Campbell, interview, 1 March 1977, BC). The shop owners easily and quickly offended the best Catawba potters. Three of the best potters, Doris Blue, Georgia Harris, and Nola Campbell refused to take their work to Cherokee:

They [the shop owners] wanted me to give [my pottery] to them, and I wouldn't. I worked too hard to make pots and give them away, and I

didn't sell them. I brought mine back home. I went up there one time to try and sell pottery, but I couldn't sell mine, not for what they wanted to give for them. So I brought mine back home. I set out a big pile there, and they would say, "I'll give you so and so for that big pile," and it would be maybe five cents apiece, and I'd have big pieces in there. . . . That's the way they were. . . . I said, "No way." I just packed them up and brought them back home. (Georgia Harris, interview, 19 March 1980, BC)

In effect, the merchants were caught in a price war between the best Catawba potters and those who put little pride in their work. Not terribly concerned with quality, the merchants sought the lowest prices from the less talented potters. The overall quality of the Catawba wares sold in the mountain trade dropped. Unfortunately, too, some Catawba lowered their prices to make a sale ahead of another potter or tried to reach the best dealers first. "I remember Idle [Sanders] used to try to cheese in on me. He wanted to sell to [Mrs. Reed] so bad because he knew she was a good customer because she'd take what I sold her, and he'd go by there and try to sell to her. She'd take four or five dollars worth, but then she would say, 'Well, I got some coming, Miss Harris is going to bring me some and I can't.' And she would buy it from me" (Georgia Harris, interview, 19 March 1980, BC). So common was this practice that Wesley Harris referred to it as "peddling in front" of the other person (Wesley Harris, interview, 10 May 1977, BC). To make their efforts cost effective, some Catawba potters only made small vessels. This way, Bertha Harris was able to sell hers at 15 cents each (Furman Harris, interview, 19 April 1977, BC). Naturally the prices declined. Discouraged by low prices, fewer Catawba peddled in the mountains of North Carolina. During this same period, public sector work became more available and many of the Indians abandoned pottery (Florence Wade, interview, 15 March 1977, BC).

The problems the Catawba faced were not all related to prices. Distance was a very real concern. The potters drove cars in poor repair over bad roads with few available services. In general, they had little money for a trip and depended on immediate sales for their food and other expenses. Today the Indians laugh about incidents that approached tragedy at the time they occurred. A classic among such tales was told by Louise Bryson. On the occasion she relates, it took the Beck family a week to drive from the reservation to Cherokee, a mere 190 miles:

One time, well he [Major Beck] used to like to go to the fair, that Cherokee fair. . . . And I mean he'd go in the morning and we'd stay 'til that thing was over at night—all day long. So we started this one time. Mama had a load of pots, and we started having flat tires here in York.

And at that time they didn't have any service stations. He didn't have a jack, and he didn't have a spare tire. So we had a flat tire between stations. It took us a solid week to get from here to Cherokee. We were going to the Fair, and we met it coming this way before we got there. And we stayed on the road so long, Mama had to trade our pots. We didn't have anything. They did that! We didn't have no money or anything, and they'd go to Cherokee. [They'd] get gas here. They'd go to Cherokee and [had] pots for us to come back on. Now if they didn't sell those pots I wonder how they expected to get back? I wondered about that now. But we went. It took us one solid week, and Daddy had the pink eyes. You know what the pink eye is? Your eyes just get real pink and red, and you can't see, and they just lead over. And he had a pair of shoes that he had got from the relief. And poor old fellow, his feet wouldn't go in them. They set up on the spur apiece. There he had that pink eye and his shoes was too little, and he'd have to go to [Cherokee]. When he'd have a flat tire, he'd take the tire off, and bat it to a service station. He'd never know, and we got up in the mountains and there it went down. So he said, "Well, I'll just go early in the morning and have that thing fixed, and we'll sleep here on the road tonight." Next morning he got up and took that thing. Way—it was almost dark and we seen him coming way over yonder, a little dot batting that tire. He got almost there and that thing went off the mountain. Got away from him [and] went down in a gorge in there. He came onto the car and said that thing got away from him and that Buddy could go down in there the next morning and get it out. So the next morning at daylight, he got them up and went down there and got that tire up. When they got it up, there it was flat again. It went flat over night. Same thing. He had to do that again that day. We stayed on the road so long they hollered and told us to get off the road. Yes, they said, "Get off the road." But they didn't say it like that you know.

We done without food. Then when we got to a little town, Mama traded the pots for something to eat. She'd go around to the houses and trade. Traded all her pots away before we got to Cherokee. I've often told this story. I put a little more to it sometimes, but Daddy had an old Model-A, and there wasn't any room in one of those things. Sam and Buddy was in the back with the pots, and there was me and Mama and Daddy in the front. Well, I had to lay curled up around that gear. It was on the floor, and if I moved this way, Mama slapped me. And if I moved this way Daddy would pinch me, and there I lay, and when I'd get up the next morning, I'd be all drawn up. I kind of added a little bit to that. I got out of there, and they said, "Oh, look at that poor little girl. Looks like she's deformed." Well, . . . we stayed on the road a week, and I laid in that position every night.

But that's where the police told her. We stopped somewhere and the police came over there and asked Daddy and said, "What are you doing parked here?" And Daddy said, "Well, I'm resting," and said, "We're just laying here sleeping." So he went back and told the police in another car, said, "That man said he's laying here resting," but said, "He's got a woman laying up in that car and she's snoring like a damn hog." And Daddy got mad at Mama. Said, "Wake up fool here. That police here talking about you." Said, "You're snoring like a damn hog." So he cranked the car up and drove on down the road a little piece further and stopped and said, "Now don't snore so loud this time."

We went on to Cherokee. He got a tire off something up there, and we was about a week or two. Then he come around through Wahalla cause he had a brother living there, and we was there for about a week. But we was just like a bunch of gypsies. We'd just pack up and go, and we got up there and it started raining. Well, Mama, she done got tired. She was wanting to come home, and the river was just a flowing, running over the bridges—those little old bridges. And Daddy got so mad. Both of them got mad at each other, and Daddy said, "Well, get in that car, and I'll take you home." And we come to the river where the bridge was flooded, and he didn't stop. He just tore right on across there. The bridge could have been washed away, but luckily it wasn't. And Mama was back telling him we ought to turn around and go back. He said, "No, I'm going to take you home now." Then we come on home, and we went through a big bridge there, and the water was just up level with that big bridge, and they asked you not to go across. You could go across at your own risk. You know Daddy just paddled across that thing.

I don't think we went back to the mountains again for a long time after that. (Louise Bryson, interview, 16 June 1985, BC)

The problems experienced by Major Beck and others were traumatic. In retrospect, however, the Catawba had more good luck than bad. Even today with far better tires, excellent highways and services, every traveler can tell tales of road trip happenings. Later, after the passage of time, the anguish is turned into humor. The emphasis is on ingenuity and a willingness to endure. The story of Major Beck's trip to Cherokee is a classic among the Catawba.

The Indians began to face the problem of deteriorating quality in the pottery. Some raced to fill larger orders. They lost pride in their work. The repetitiveness of making the same vessel over and over again did not help. Declining prices demanded less time per vessel. Corners were cut in every possible step in the long Catawba process. For instance, encouraged by the shopkeepers' greed, some potters did not complete the burning process (Bertha Harris, interview, 3 February 1977, BC).

But then the merchants stopped buying the pottery when its quality reached a level so low it could not be sold. One documented victim of this circumstance was a shopkeeper named Duncan. Unfortunately, he displayed his Catawba wares out of doors. "One man said he didn't want to fool with it any more because they left theirs outside in a rain storm, and when they went out to get it, the pottery had melted. [The potter] hadn't burned it. So that ruined sales from this place. Good bye" (Doris Blue, interview, 24 March 1980, BC).

In recent years, the Catawba have shown a revived interest in returning to Cherokee to sell pottery. Low prices remain a problem. A 1979 survey of several dozen shops on the Cherokee reservation only revealed some substandard vessels made by Jennie Brindle. These vessels were being sold for $3.98. This same craft shop also carried examples of wares made by several Cherokee potters. From 1989 to 1990 Sara Lee and Foxx Ayers were reportedly selling through the Cherokee Qualla Cooperative.

Today the Catawba are more interested in sales to museum shops and collectors who visit the reservation. There are indications that some wholesaling is being done, but the shopkeepers usually visit the potters' homes where the advantages seem to tip in favor of the Indians. Few if any Catawba potters look to the mountains of North Carolina for sales opportunities.

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