Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community member Jacob Butler is well known for his work as the Community Garden Coordinator for the SRPMIC Cultural Resources Department. But what people may not know is that Butler also has taken what he has learned as a Community employee and turned that into Artforms that are keeping alive the traditional ways of O’odham/Piipaash pottery making, shell etching, jewelry making and drawing.
During a presentation at the Native American Journalists Association (NAJA) Student Awards Banquet, held on Friday, July 19 at Salt River Two Waters Building, Butler demonstrated some techniques for making these traditional crafts for the journalists in attendance. Community member Ron Carlos, a well-known potter, was also on hand to talk about traditional O’odham pottery-making techniques.
Butler told the Native journalists that he is continually working to learn what he can and improve his work, and his goal is to share these crafts with others and teach the techniques for making them.
Although the extra income helps, “It’s not about making money—it’s more about revitalizing these crafts and keeping them strong,” Butler said. “For me, it’s a symbol of who we are. It’s a testament to [O’odham] sovereignty that we are a distinct and separate people, that we have this distinct culture here and a rich heritage that is still alive today.”
Making Pots for Traditional Uses
When Butler was younger, he learned basics of how to make pottery through different Community activities here and there. But it wasn’t until he started working at the Cultural Resources Department that he had the opportunity to meet O’odham/Piipaash potters like Dorothea Avery from Laveen and Annie Manuel from Hickiwan and some of the Paipai potters from Baja California.
“That’s when I started to take off with [pottery making]. I wanted to know everything about pottery, so I started learning what it took to make it,” said Butler. “A lot of the pots you see today are ornamental, [but] what really got my attention was … [the pots that] served a purpose and were traded a thousand years ago.”
The knowledge of making pots to use as cookware, as water jugs or for seed storage is just one way for Butler to tie back to the O’odham ancestors. Gathering the same clay for his pots and learning the old techniques also will keep traditional pottery going for generations to come.
Because of his work at the Cultural Resources Department, Butler has had the opportunity to visit the sites that are ancestral sources. The ancient O’odham Known to Archaeologist as the” Hohokam” gathered raw materials for their pottery. “It’s from one gathering place; by working with the Bureau of Land Management, we identified the site [of micaceous shist], and I am able to get the material from the same site. To me, that is special—to actually go out there and gather the material, like the micaceous schist, and to go around the Community and find the different clay that is used to make the pots and [pigments used to] paint them,” said Butler.
Butler called Carlos “his teacher” and said that he has learned to make better pots by watching Carlos and by getting advice and guidance from him. The two often do craft demonstrations together and fire their pottery together.
“There is a pottery-makers gathering that gets together on Saturdays,” (hosted by Ron Carlos) said Butler. “We all sit together and make pots. It makes our day go by too, when we are sitting around working on our pots, joking around. I fire [pottery] with Ron all the time. It’s cool opening the fire, seeing which pots survived, and sharing that with someone else who put that time and effort into the pots.”
Butler not only does traditional artwork, but he also enjoys drawing comics and painting, which comes in handy when he’s designing graphics for his decorative pottery. He also paints designs on Carlos’ pots. “I have the honor and privilege to paint his pots,” Butler said.
“I like [very] intricate [designs], so I would throw [the pot] away if I thought I messed up the pot or design, even if no one [but me] could see it. But working with Ron Carlos, Alice Manuel and others at the Cultural Resources Department, I learned that nothing in the world is perfect and [how] to see the flaws for what they are, let them go and be happy with it,” said Butler. “I use traditional designs, more Huhugam-style designs, but I try to use them in different ways. I won’t just make an exact replica of a pot already made, because that was someone else’s idea. I try to do different designs.”
Right now Butler’s ultimate goal in pottery making is to make a good cooking pot.
“I want to make a pot that doesn’t crack when you heat it up or put water in it,” said Butler. “I can make smaller pots that can be cooked in and water boiled in but as for a large pot”, I am almost there!”
Shell Etching for Traditional Jewelry
The practice of etching shells goes back about 1500 years. Etching shell in this manner was started by our ancestors the “Hohokam” before anyone else in the world. The people stopped etching shell a couple of hundred years later but continued to use shell as adornment, this was continued by the O’odham.
The etching was done traditionally by first painting the shell with pitch, the shell designed with pitch is then submerged in saguaro wine, the acids in the wine actually etch the shell by eating away the areas not covered by pitch. Once the shell has been submerged for a long period of time it is washed and the pitch removed leaving the permanent etching.
During his presentation at the NAJA banquet, Butler demonstrated how he etches a large shell by dipping a shell he painted into one of his small pots, which was filled with vinegar.
Butler makes his vinegar from a natural source. “I get saguaro syrup (bahidaj sitol) from the Tohono [O’odham] Nation. To etch [shells], you first have to turn [the syrup] into wine, [and then] let it get old and turn into vinegar, which is about a two-month process,” said Butler. He said it takes about three ounces of syrup to get enough vinegar to etch one or two shells.
“I [could etch shells] in a more contemporary way, by using modern materials like vinegar and nail polish, and that is [what we use when teaching children about shell etching],” he said. Out of about 60,000 people in the various O’odham communities, Butler estimated that there are just a couple who know how to etch shells using the traditional materials.
If any Community children would like to learn shell etching, Butler said, “they can track me down and I will show them. I would like to see that this [traditional craft] goes on.”
Working With Shells and Stones
In making his jewelry and other items, Butler has been working with materials from many traditional gathering sites.
For two recent shell pieces, Butler used spiny oyster shell, a naturally red shell as a base, and used tiny turquoise and argillite stones to make designs of a frog and a thunderbird. “There are over 300 [individual] stones in the frog and 200 in the thunderbird, and each stone was carved down by hand,” said Butler. “The turquoise comes from the Tombstone Mountains, the red is petrified clay from Prescott, and the shell comes from the Sea of Cortez. These are all places that are ancient gathering sites of the people. They all come from the same areas that our ancestors gathered at. All that material isn’t there just to look good; it also has some cultural significance.”
A lot of people don’t realize that the O’odham did have turquoise, because it is often associated with the Navajo. A thousand years ago, the Hohokam used turquoise as adornments. Even Mosaic shell pendants were made here over a thousand years ago, usually the people of power had these items, such as the leaders or medicine men of the community, explained Butler.
“The shells reflect water; when you wear a shell, you honor the water. The frog is really significant to the people; the frog also is associated with water and [his power] over water. I’ve been told that if you mess with the frogs, they will make the world flood. When I was little I didn’t understand, but later on, when I understood that they had power over the water I respect them and leave them alone. [I learned frog depictions using glycimeris shell is distinct to our people] it’s something that identifies us, and that’s why I use the design. I try to stay true to all the traditional materials and designs.”
Butler says he is lucky to occasionally sell some of his shell etchings or pottery, but most of the time he gives away or trades his work. Especially when he has used the saguaro wine and other natural materials, he is reluctant to sell any of those pieces because of the effort and spirit that went into making them. He feels better giving the item to someone who knows and can appreciate the amount of work involved and the intrinsic value of the piece.
He also sees his work as a legacy he can leave for his children. Some pieces he has made are in the collections of galleries and museums, both locally and in other states.
“My kids can go to the Casa Grande Ruins or Pueblo Grande Museum and request to see their permanent collection, and they can see some of their dad’s work. It’s like a footprint that I can leave for my kids to look at,” Butler said. A rattle that he made is in a gallery in Sweden. Also, “I have work in Michigan, Wisconsin and New York. It’s awesome to know that my ‘mark’ is out there, and later on my kids will know that I had some kind of role in [preserving O’odham traditions].”
Butler is gratified that he has seen some interest in pottery from his two older daughters. The oldest Angelica has taken classes with him before, and his second-oldest girl Juliann has recently let him know that she would like to learn how to make pottery. He plans to take her to the next set of pottery-making classes offered by the O’odham Piipaash Language Program.
For information about classes and activities of the O’odham Piipaash Language Program, call (480) 362-5501.