Visiting The Clay Holes

Catawba digging methods also illustrate how clay sources are easily kept hidden and even lost. Today, that section of Nisbet Bottoms of interest to the Indians is a large cultivated field, and each potter has favorite digging areas within the bottoms. These locations constantly shift. The potters dig clay and fill in the hole. It is not likely that they will even tell other potters of a particularly good find. It stands to reason, if a potter finds a new source, its location may never be divulged. Not knowing the extent of the vein of clay, the potter's fear is that a limited supply might be quickly depleted.

Changes have come about in visiting the clay holes in the last cen tury. Before the introduction of the automobile in the 1920s, all the Indians visited the bottoms by boat or occasionally by wagon. Both methods had advantages and disadvantages. "We used to cross the river in a boat—go to the clay hole and dig our clay and put it on our backs and carry it back to the river. That wasn't no short walk from the clay holes to the river either. . . . We'd carry and sometimes we'd have to make two or three trips back. The clay was damp and wet, and you couldn't carry a lot" (Georgia Harris, interview, 20 March 1980, BC). To make this approach easier, the Indians sometimes left a mule and a wagon on the reservation side so the clay would not have to be carried the last stage in the trip on their backs. The only alternative to this laborious method was to use a wagon. "We would have to go then clear around by the old ferry where John Brown's ferry would be. It was an all day trip, and we'd have to take lunch, and we'd get a bunch of people. We'd have three or four wagons, and we'd go all the way . . . up by Van Wyck, back up to that place" (Doris Blue, interview, 20 March 1980, BC).

Some potters have always worked at a great disadvantage. Individuals who have few family members to help have difficulty visiting the clay holes and often have no one to send in their place. This is true of the elderly and those who live alone. Such was the case with Edith Brown. When she first began to make pottery, she relied on clay provided by her in-laws, Rachel and John Brown (Edith Brown, interview, 21 April 1977, BC). She had fortunately married into a family that was very involved in pottery making. Other potters, particularly those who married out of the tribe, had more serious problems obtaining clay. Lula Blue married Major Beck who was from a Cherokee family in northern Georgia, which had strong affiliations with the Cherokee at the Qualla Boundary. Major Beck gained his appreciation for the Catawba tradition after he married. This fact may or may not account for his reluctance to dig clay for his wife. "Well, Daddy never would go get none for Mama. What little bit she'd get, she'd get from somebody. She'd go over here to this Collins place; . . . I remember her and Eliza Gordon going over there and getting it. But I don't know why Daddy didn't go and get her clay. But she didn't ever let us fool with clay because she never did have a lot of clay like some of them would. Just have a tub full at a time. And she'd just have a little bit, so I figured that's why she never let me fool with it" (Louise Bryson, interview, 15 June 1985, BC). The situation experienced by Fannie Canty was also unique. For much of her life, this potter had to either dig her own clay or depend on others to get clay for her. It is not surprising that she treasured what clay she had, and all of her children remember clay as a precious commodity. Alberta Ferrell was most graphic:

"Mama [Fannie Canty] would not let us kids fool with her clay. She would not waste it. It was too hard to get. We went for the clay in boats. Once she got to the other side of the river, she could only carry so much back at a time. We were not allowed to play with it at all" (Alberta Ferrell, interview, 22 February 1977, BC).

The potters are also quite particular about the quality of their clay. For instance, Doris Blue spoke of her mother's attitude: "Rosie Whee-lock knew good clay and did not want any dirt in her clay" (Doris Blue, interview March 20, 1980). Georgia Harris is more emphatic when she talks of her grandmother, Martha Jane Harris. This potter would not entrust this crucial task to anyone other than herself. She alone knew what quality clay she needed and acted accordingly:

We'd take some man along or sometimes Jesse would go. He'd dig the clay a lot of times, but my grandmother, you never could please her about her clay. She'd have to dig that clay. She'd let them clean the hole out. Then, when it got down to digging the clay out of there, she got down and dug it herself. Nobody could dig clay to suit her. It had to be right when she got it. It couldn't have no grits in it, and it didn't. It had to be free of all the dirt. She even picked it before she put it in the sack. And if there was any dirt in it, she'd pick it and throw it away. Had to be pure clay when she got it. (Georgia Harris, interview, 20 March 1980, BC)

In ancient times, the Catawba depended on fire-hardened digging sticks and shell and stone implements. In many cases the clay holes were no doubt visible outcroppings that were left open. As soon as iron tools became available, the Catawba pragmatically shifted to shovels and discarded their digging sticks. Today, the Catawba use garden tools to dig clay. Once the men have reached acceptable clay, a quantity is thrown out of the hole. The waiting potters then pick the clay, remove veins of dirt and any large impurities. Martha Jane Harris called this "picking the gold" (Georgia Harris, interview March 1977). The selected clay is then loaded into sacks and buckets and taken home.

Before the development of the North Carolina mountain trade in the 1920s, the Indians seemed to prefer clays that burned a mottled red color. Today the potters seek clay that will burn a mottled gray, sometimes nearly white. The apparent reason for this shift from red to gray clay is a matter of taste. Contemporary potters will use red clay. Knowledge of this trend often helps in dating a vessel.

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