For many Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community members, it is a blessing to have the knowledge to carry on cultural aspects of our ancestors. One of those cultural traditions is pottery-making, and on April 14, O’odham-Piipaash Education Specialist Ron Carlos taught the first of three classes on making plain-ware pottery. Plain-ware pottery is a simple form of pottery that is not polished.
Carlos said he has been interested in pottery and other Native crafts since he was a child. “My mom had a lot of old pottery, and I used to wonder how [a] pot was made,” said Carlos.
Carlos’ curiosity sparked his interest in learning to make pottery. The Huhugam Ki Museum offered a pottery class to SRPMIC members, and he decided to sign up for it. He began learning the craft from Phyllis Cerna and her daughter Avis Pinion, who are both from the Maricopa Colony on the Gila River Indian Community.
“After the museum classes ended, I would go to the Maricopa Colony and visit Phyllis and Avis and ask them all kinds of questions about pottery-making,” Carlos said. “Finally, after all my questions had been answered and after watching Phyllis do multiple pottery-making demonstrations, I was eventually able to make pottery on my own.”
Carlos said that he didn’t make pottery all the time back then, like he does now. “About five years ago I started doing pottery full-time,” he said. Today Carlos presents many pottery demonstrations, including teaching classes through the O’odham Piipaash Language Program (OPLP).
The plain-ware pottery class has nine students. During the first class, the focus was on learning about the types of clay and how to process clay to make pottery. Carlos said he gets most of his clays from Viikwxet (Red Mountain). “It just depends on what color I’m looking for, [because] clay comes in all kinds of different colors. It [also] depends on what you are going to make, and for what purpose. I say this because not all clays are good for making pottery; some clays are weak and are only good for making paint.” He added, “Although clays can be found all around us, you have to try different clays and see which works best.”
Processing the clay is the most important step in preparing to make pottery, and it takes a lot of work. Carlos explained, “Sometimes the clay is damp, and it has to be dried out before you can process it. Once the clay is dry, we use old metal cooking pots and a large, long stone to pound the clay into a powder. It takes a long time—probably about a couple [of] hours to get about a gallon of pulverized clay.”
Carlos says after you are done pulverizing your clay you will then add a little water. By only adding a little water at a time you can begin to see your dirt clay turn into the moist clay form.
“It is much like kneading dough for ce:mait, you have to take your time and don’t knead it too much or your clay will be hard,” said Carlos.
Now that the clay has been processed, in the next class Carlos will explain the tools needed and how to shape and mold plain-ware pottery. Watch for the upcoming article in Au-Authm Action News.
Tools for Processing Clay
A bucket of clumps of clay
A steel pot (preferably a pressure-cooker pot)
A pounding stone called a “pestle”
A sifter with handle
An empty bucket to hold the processed clay