“During those early years, I did not work in the clay, but watched my elders; and in watching … I learned from them … During all those years, I was observing my mother and grandmother at work and absorbing their methods of constructing the pottery and shapes they commonly built.”
— Georgia Harris on Learning to Make Pottery
The Catawba Nation has called the vast land around the Catawba River their home for thousands of years. Their influence on our ever-evolving surroundings is strong – it can be found in place names, through language, and in foods. One of the longest unbroken traditions of the Catawba people is the creation of pottery. Though the Nation has changed drastically over time, this tradition has persisted. Traditional pottery connects generations through time – it tells stories about a culture and the individuals themselves.
The Catawba method for creating pottery requires various tools – many of which are passed down through generations, in the same way that stories and oral histories are passed down. One of these tools is known as the “burnishing stone.” Burnishing stones are used to produce the signature shiny finish of Catawba pottery.
Pottery tools like these were passed down through families or from teacher to student. These burnishing stones are used to rub the fired surface of the pottery to make it smooth and shiny. Credit: “Georgia Harris’ Pottery Tools.’ Photograph by Dr. Thomas John Blumer. USC Lancaster Native American Studies Archive.
To generate new interest in pottery, members of the Catawba Nation began classes on traditional techniques and styles in the 1970s. Master potters tasked themselves with teaching their techniques to new generations to preserve and perpetuate the tradition. This new generation of potters is now passing the tradition down to young adults and children today. Current Catawba Chief Bill Harris learned to create pottery from his elders and is now part of passing down the tradition - watch this live pottery demonstration hosted by the Museum and the Catawba Nation during Indigenous Peoples Week 2020.
The women in this photo from the 1987 Catawba Fair were master potters who helped preserve the pottery-making tradition of the Catawba Nation. Credit: “The Language of Clay: Catawba Indian Pottery & Oral Traditions,” USC Lancaster.
Our new exhibit on Catawba pottery, “The Language of Clay,” opens tomorrow! Find visiting information and tickets at charlottemuseum.org.
For more information about the Catawba Nation, check out the links below:
Until next time!
UNC Charlotte Graduate Student
Summer Intern – The Charlotte Museum of History
About The Charlotte Museum of History
The Charlotte Museum of History exists to save and share the Charlotte region’s history, helping create a better understanding of the past and inspiring dialogue about the future. The museum is the steward of the 1774 Hezekiah Alexander Rock House and homesite, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is the oldest home in Mecklenburg County. Visit charlottemuseum.org and follow the museum on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. The museum is an independent 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization.
“The Language of Clay: Catawba Indian Pottery & Oral Traditions,” travelling exhibit organized by the University of South Carolina Lancaster.
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“We have to do with the past only as we can make it useful to the present and the future.” – Frederick Douglass