Among the Catawba Indians in present-day York County, an unbroken chain of pottery production has helped preserve a cultural identity that was nearly lost after European settlement. Ten thousand strong when settlers first arrived, their population was reduced to less than one hundred by 1849. Traditionally, women made pottery; but when the population declined so severely, everybody had to make pottery. This activity helped maintain community traditions and is now one of the purest folk art forms in this country.
Utilizing clay dug near the Catawba River, the Catawbas’ methods of production are nearly unchanged since the Woodland (1000 B.C.E.–600 C.E.) and Mississippian (600–1600 C.E.) periods. Impurities are removed from pipe and pan clay, and then pots are handbuilt using traditional coiling techniques. Protruding features, such as handles and legs, are attached by riveting (pushing the attachment through a hole pierced in the pot) rather than by direct application to the surface. This technique creates features that will not break off easily. Once pots are air dried, the surface is scraped even with a piece of bone, antler, or a knife and then burnished to a shine with a smooth river stone. These stones are prized possessions, handed down from mother to daughter through the generations. Decoration, if desired, is then incised into the surface. Firing is often in two stages. A fire is built in a pit and the pots placed near it to heat. Then the warmed pots are placed in the pit to complete the process. Smoke from the burning wood creates distinctive patterns on the surfaces of the pots.
In Rock Hill, South Carolina, Catawba pottery was sold at the gates of Winthrop University from 1895 through the 1920s. It was taken door-to-door, sold and traded for clothing and other goods on the main road through the reservation, and traded with local merchants as recently as the 1960s.
Population declines have not been the only threats to the survival of this pre-Columbian art form. The economic pressures that made production and sale of pottery necessary to the Catawbas’ survival also dictated changes. Beginning in the 1920s, merchants in the Cherokee region of western North Carolina became an important market for Catawba pottery. Their buyers were tourists and their concern was money, not the quality of the pots they offered. Under pressures to produce vast quantities of work, the potters’ craftsmanship declined. Their clumsy pots became smaller, thick walled, less symmetrical, and poorly fired. By the time the tourist trade ended in the late 1960s, few potters remained active.
The first museum exhibition to focus on Catawba Indian pottery was the York County Children’s Nature Museum in 1952. It would be more than twenty years before the native craft would be brought to the public again. An exhibition in 1973, Catawba Indian Trade Pottery of the Historic Period, at the Columbia Museum of Art gave these potters the recognition they needed to begin a revival of this purest of South Carolina folk arts. Prices and public interest went up and have continued to do so. New potters continue the tradition, learning from their parents and from the surviving master potters. These contemporary masters strive for the qualities—gracefully curved and well-crafted shapes, delicately decorated, beautifully burnished, properly fired—found in work done before the Cherokee trade period.
Blumer, Thomas J. Catawba Indian Pottery: The Survival of a Folk Tradition. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2004.
Blumer, Thomas, and Charles G. Zug. Catawba Clay: Pottery from the Catawba Nation. Exhibition catalog. North Carolina Pottery Center, 2000.
Williams, Lesley, and Tom Stanley. Catawba Pottery: Legacy of Survival. Exhibition catalog. South Carolina Arts Commission, 1995.