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The Story of Catawba Pottery

The majority of Catawba live on or near the Catawba Reservation on the banks of the Catawba River near Rock Hill, SC. In 1540, Spanish explorers encountered these Siouan-speaking peoples during their explorations of the Carolinas. The Spanish and, later, English explorers identified the indigenous inhabitants of the Catawba Valley areas by many names, but the most common was the label (or a variant of) “Iswa,” a term the modern Catawba still use and one meaning “people of the river.” Early contact with Europeans, either directly or indirectly, proved detrimental in a number of ways to the indigenous people of the Carolinas. At first, Old World diseases decimated the Catawba and their neighbors. Those Native communities that suffered the greatest number of casualties from disease, and later warfare, became refugees in their own lands. In the 1700s, many of these refugees were absorbed into the Catawba population. Over the next two centuries, the Catawba Nation suffered through war, disease, and Euro-American encroachment. Despite being driven to near extinction on several occasions, the Catawba have survived and with them, their traditions, particularly their pottery.

Image: Jar, 19th Century, Anon, Wingard Collection, Special Collections; Photo by: Fran Gardner

Native American Pottery in South Carolina

Native American pottery in South Carolina is the oldest ceramic-making tradition in the United States and Canada. This tradition began about 4500-5000 years ago when potters combined clay, Spanish moss (as a tempering agent) and water to produce thick flat bottomed pots. This pottery is particularly common in the Savannah River drainage from the mountains to the sea and across the coastal plain from the Savannah River east to the Cape Fear River. Archaeologists call this pottery “Stallings Island fiber-tempered” for an island near Augusta, Georgia where it was first documented. Early potters produced either plain surfaced vessels or decorated them with punctations (marks or impressions) made with a reed or another type of stylus. Following quickly on the heels of Stallings Island ware (and overlapping for some time) is the Thoms Creek ceramic series with pieces made much thinner, tempered with fine sand and decorated with punctations and incised lines. Temper is an aplastic (non-clay material) mixed into the clay paste to allow for uniform drying, better success at firing and a stronger overall vessel.

Catawba pottery represents a single continuous, unbroken tradition. Surviving the tribe’s near-extinction, centuries of hardship, and assimilation attempts, Catawba pottery-making remains the oldest continuous ceramics tradition in the United States. This exhibit gives examples of the traditional way of making pottery-- using the coil method of construction, rubbing stones, and pit firing.

Image: Catawba pottery by multiple artists, 2015, All objects are from the Special Collections; Photo by: Brittany Taylor-Driggers

Oral Traditions

The region we today know as South Carolina has a long and complex history of Native American and European/Euro-American relations. As one of the earliest points of contact with European explorers, the state’s indigenous population was, consequentially, among the first to suffer the destructive effects of colonialism and genocide. For over four centuries, South Carolina’s Native groups have struggled to preserve their identity and maintain their traditions. A majority of these were unsuccessful. Those who did manage to hold on to their heritage--the Catawba, the Pee Dee, the Santee, the Waccamaw, and a handful of others—did so, to a large degree, by maintaining local narratives and material folk traditions. Today, many of those traditions that did survive are in danger of being lost. Nevertheless, family stories, belief narratives, lore regarding local plants and animals, and other narrative traditions continue to thrive among the Catawba people.

Image: Bird Effigy Bowl, 2016, Bill Harris, Special Collections; Photo by: Brittany Taylor-Driggers

The Catawba Language

Catawba was once spoken by people living near the Catawba River in South Carolina. It has been dormant only since the middle of the twentieth century but it has not been spoken fluently by a large number of people since the late 1880’s.

The Catawba language, although highly endangered, has profited from explorers’ interest as early as 1701, perhaps even earlier if we include the Spanish explorers that came through the Carolinas around the 1540s. Language materials from these sources are naturally scant and were incidental within accounts of Indian cultures of the Southeast. However, they give us a glimpse into older forms of Catawba and forms of related Eastern Siouan languages still spoken during that time.

Catawba, a Catawban-Siouan language, is believed to have been spoken in various dialects across the Carolinas, and parts of Virginia and Georgia, by more than 10,000 Native peoples. Several related eastern Siouan languages, such as Tutelo, Woccon, Biloxi, were spoken in various parts across the Southeast before the advent of the Europeans, however the exact numbers of different eastern Siouan languages and dialects spoken throughout the Southeast is unknown.

Eventually many Southeastern tribes, Siouan and other, reduced by wars and illnesses, merged with the Catawba. For this reason, scholars of the Catawba language have found inconsistencies in the grammar, two or three unrelated words describing the same object or action and certain verbs that have up to 15 stems.

By the end of the 18th century, separate vocabulary lists of Catawba began to appear in manuscripts and publications. Serious study of the Catawba language emerged towards the end of the 19th century. Studies included comparisons between Catawba, related and non-related languages, phonology and some attempt to sort out the grammar.

These studies continued until around the 1950s when interest in the Catawba language diminished with the death of the last fluent native speaker, Chief Samuel Taylor Blue, in 1959.

Cited: John Lawson, A New Voyage to Carolina, ed. Hugh Talmage Lefler (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1967).

Image: Pitcher, 2007, Florence Wade, Duke Energy Collection, Special Collections; Photo by: Fran Gardner

“Ah, the firing—it’s a delicate thing. It humbles you quickly.” Caroleen Sanders

Reviving the Tradition: Pottery Classes

In the late 1970’s the Catawba Nation made a great effort to create interest and develop classes to teach tribal members the pottery tradition. Supported in part by the state Arts Commission, a group of master potters began offering regular instruction to a new generation of potters.

Image: Horned Owl, 2016, Bill Harris, Special Collections; Owl, 1979, Georgia Harris, Thomas J. Blumer Collection, Special Collections; Photo by: Brittany Taylor-Driggers

‘We played as children, and we’d see them – how they made [the pottery.] I just picked it up. (Jennie Brindle, interview, 11 August 1982, BC)

Tradition and the Individual Talent

“The historical sense involves a perception, not only of the pastness of the past, but of its presence.”

–T.S. Eliot, “Tradition and the Individual Talent”

Catawba Indian pottery, while less familiar than its Southwestern counterparts and many other traditional American Indian art forms, is recognized by many scholars as the oldest continuous ceramics tradition east of the Mississippi and by collectors as a tradition which often features, paradoxically, strict adherence to tradition and vibrant creativity and innovation. This ceramics tradition is an art form that reflects “the historical sense,” but, at the same time, offers the best of potters, like Georgia Harris, a vehicle for expressing their own individual talents and creativity.

Family Traditions and Pedagogy

The Catawba pottery tradition has been passed down to younger generations through elder family members or mentors. It is not necessarily passed from mother/father to daughter/son and the lessons could be with or without oral instruction. More often a person is taught the methods of making pottery through observation by sitting with a family member(s) or elder(s) while the pottery is made. Often these relationships become mentoring: the protégé establishes a strong bond with the mentor, one that is often maintained for years.

Image: Jar with Handles and Snake and Frog Effigies, 2007, Caroleen Sanders, SC Budget and Control Board Collection, Special Collections; Photo by: Fran Gardner

Individual and Traditional Form

Although the assembly method of the pottery has not changed, the designs applied to the surface and the overall aesthetics have continuously evolved with the changing of the times. The individual artistic approach to the traditional form often draws the interest of collectors and other artists. This change comes from a logical, but sophisticated, evolution of their traditional symbols, forms, and processes. This evolution is, for some potters, a reclaiming of their traditional culture; while for others, it is an opportunity to create new modern pieces. Many of the new forms that have emerged are signature to certain potters and signify that artist’s influence on the tradition. Certain potters and their students have transformed the tradition into a vehicle for their personal artistic voices, which has helped bring awareness to the Catawba Nation through the exhibition of their work. Such artists have also kept the tradition dynamic and have inspired new forms and variations on the traditional production techniques. These potters are not just examples on a timeline, but are contributors to a living tradition. These potters embrace the past and transform it into the future. And their artistic creations often change the way we see those of their predecessors.

Image: Bowl with Gopher Legs, 1977, Edith Brown, Special Collections; Photo by: Brittany Taylor-Driggers

‘No one taught me. I just sat and watched’ (Edith Brown, interview, 21 April 1977, BC).

Pottery Making Process

Making pottery is a long, and at times strenuous, undertaking. The potters start the process by digging clay from clay holes used by the tribe for generations--digging with shovels until they reach a quality of clay suitable for pottery making. This labor is sometimes a group and family effort to make it easier for individual potters, but the work involved is still back breaking and can be an all-day job.

Processing the Clay

Once the clay is dug, the potters can start to process it to remove any impurities. This cleaning process involves pounding, sifting and straining the clay through wire screens multiple times to clean out debris. In the images you see here, the clay is dried, pounded and cleaned by hand. After the clay is clean, the dry clays can then be mixed and rehydrated.

Tools of the Potter

Like other artists around the world who hand-build pottery, the Catawba use a variety of tools to shape, thin, burnish and decorate their works. Chief among the items in these tool kits are burnishing stones used to “rub” the surface of still-moist vessels to achieve the shiny finish the Catawba’s pots are well known for. These stones, along with other tools, are often passed down from one generation to the next.

Image: Keith Brown making Pottery, 2016; Photo by: Brittany Taylor-Driggers

Hand-building and the Making of Pottery

Hand-building ceramic techniques most commonly used by the Catawba are coil and pinch methods.

When using the coil method, a base is constructed out of a slab of clay. Coils of clay are then cut, rolled and added to the base. The coils are then rubbed together to seal them. This process is continued until the potter creates the intended form. When using the pinch method, potters “pinch” a ball of clay with their fingers to shape the clay into a vessel or animal effigy.

If needed, the piece is then molded, pressed with a paddle or other flat object, and worked over by the potter to make sure that it is symmetrical with all attached pieces secured to the main body of the pot. Then the piece is ready to be scraped.

The Firing Process

When the pottery is leather-hard, the walls of the piece are scraped to enhance the shape and/or to thin out the walls. The burnishing and incising of designs – if any designs are planned—are also done at this time. The outside of a spoon bowl can be used to burnish, and the edge of a spoon can be used to scrape and thin the walls of the vessels. Even dried corn cobs and shells are employed in the thinning process.

The firing process for the Catawba potters is precarious because potters use pit firing techniques instead of kilns. With these types of firing processes, there is a higher chance of inconsistent temperatures that could cause the pottery to crack or break apart.

Image: Jar with Handles, 2006, Keith Brown, Duke Energy Collection, Special Collections; Photo by: Fran Gardner

Shifts in Design

Scholars believe that European contact (and the metal vessels they brought with them to the New World) influenced the Catawba to add handles and flat bottoms to their traditional vessels. Most of the Catawba cooking and storage vessels were originally cone shaped. The cone-shaped cooking vessels were placed outside the fire and rotated around the heat in order to cook the food thoroughly and as a means of stirring the food at the same time without the use of utensils. Placing the cooking vessel outside of the fire also insured the vessel would be heated slowly to prevent it from shattering due to too much heat added too quickly. The storage vessels were hung from tree branches or rafters inside Catawba homes. As contact with Europeans increased, Catawba pottery became tradeware. Potters sold their creations to or traded with Europeans settlers. Catawba cooking pots were especially popular in Charleston.

Utilitarian Uses

Along with using pottery for storage and cooking needs, the Catawba used pottery to hold and distribute medicine.

Production and Sale of Catawba Pottery

The last quarter of the twentieth century saw a revival of Catawba pottery and a growth in the market for these traditional ceramics. In the period before this renaissance, pottery production fell into significant decline. Early in the twentieth century production and sale of Catawba pottery had increased when potters participated in the Cherokee tourist trade in North Carolina. As public WPA work and private sector jobs became more available, potters found less and less time and energy for their traditional art. Opportunities for mill work around the Reservation were especially important in their effect on pottery production: Catawba men and women could make much more money working in textile mills than selling pottery. But long, hard work days left little time for pottery making. The decline of these textile jobs coincides with the Catawba’s cultural revival. Around the same time that the Catawba leadership reached a multi-million dollar settlement with the federal government and regained federal recognition as a tribe, potters began attracting more attention from collectors. The establishment of the Catawba Cultural Preservation Project helped nurture new potters and provided vending opportunities for established artists. Late twentieth-century exhibitions of Catawba pottery at regional and national venues, the popularity of Catawba festivals and powwows, and eventually the rise of Ebay and other online outlets, increased the demand for (and price of) Catawba Indian pottery.

It was only in the 20th century that Catawbas began to make decorative pieces like animal effigies.

Image: Pottery Installation, 2013, All objects are from Special Collections; Photo by: Brittany Taylor-Driggers

Online Exhibit Project Staff

  • Brittany Taylor-Driggers, Assistant Professor of Art and Curator of Collections and Galleries
  • Sam Farris, Collections, Galleries, and Studio Assistant at USC Lancaster

Physical Exhibit Project Staff

  • Brittany Taylor-Driggers, Assistant Professor of Art and Curator of Collections and Galleries
  • Brent Burgin, Director of Archives
  • Dr. Stephen Criswell, Co-Director of Native American Studies
  • Chris Judge, Assistant Director of Native American Studies
  • Claudia Heinemann-Priest, Instructor of English, Literature, and Catawba Language
  • Beckee Garris
  • Brittney Ciesa
  • Jacob Hendrix

Original Physical Exhibit Supported by: National Endowment for the Arts; Humanities Council, SC; the SC Arts Commission; Duke Energy; Founders Federal Credit Union;The Catawba Cultural Preservation Project; The City of Lancaster

Image: Peace Pipe, 2006, Keith Brown, Special Collections; Photo by: Brittany Taylor-Driggers