Today, the Catawba Nation is known for its unique and culturally significant pottery. In our first post, we briefly wrote about the cultural revival of Catawba language, pottery, and other skills in the 1970s as they fought for federal recognition. This revival involved bringing in the elders in their community who were still master artisans and making a concerted effort to teach younger generations those same skills. One woman who played a large role in the revival was Georgia Harris.
Later in her life, Georgia Harris became nationally known for her pottery and played a large part in helping revive the tradition and pass it on to new generations, including her grandson Bill Harris, now Chief of the Catawba Nation. Photo: “Georgia Harris, Construction Series.” Photographed by Richmond, Indian Arts and Crafts Board. USC Lancaster Native American Studies Special Collections.
Harris was born in 1905. Her mother and grandmother were potters, and she learned the craft by watching them create. Harris started creating pottery seriously at just ten years old. At the time, Catawba pottery was sold in the area as cheap tourist souvenirs and Georgia, along with her mother and grandmother, sold pottery as a way to support themselves. As an adult, Harris married, had two children, and worked as a nurse in her later years. In 1952, Georgia submitted a piece to the York County Fair and won first prize. Her work was included in exhibitions at the Columbia Museum of Art, where it sold for collector prices. Here’s an excerpt from an interview with Georgia about the exhibit and her surprise at what collectors were willing to pay:
“[Steve Baker] was wanting to put on that show… And I told him, I said, ‘I’m working; I don’t have time to make [pottery]!’ And he kept on. So, one day, I sat down and I made about a dozen. He told me to price my pots … I was pleased [with the prices]. Baker just went wild with mine! After he took them, he even put them up higher than I had them! I got one hundred dollars for that headed bowl! And so, the big headed one was the last one sold. And the next week, I got a [check] … Now it went to two hundred and some dollars!” -Georgia Harris Oral History Interview March 1980
As the Catawba Nation fought for federal recognition, Georgia became more involved in showcasing and teaching Catawba pottery. In 1979, she traveled to D.C. to exhibit her work in the Smithsonian’s Renwick Gallery. In the same period, she began teaching her grandson, Bill Harris - now Chief of the Catawba Indian Nation, the same skill that her grandmother passed down to her.
“As a young man in the 1970s, I accompanied my grandmother to the secret tribal clay holes to gather clay for the pottery that had for millennia served our people … I inherited from her a set of handmade clay molds which she created to form the distinctive King Hagler head shape that decorated her pots for so many years, and that now decorates mine. She has been gone for over a decade, but when I watch my hands working the clay, I see her hands. And when I rake my own pots out of the burning coals… , I feel not only her presence but the presence of centuries of Catawba Indian potters.” - Bill Harris on his grandmother and Catawba potter Georgia Harris.
(Side note – the Museum’s 2020 interview with Chief Harris and Elizabeth Harris about pottery is a delightful program. You can watch it anytime on the Museum’s YouTube channel!)
Harris’ national recognition helped cement the revival of pottery traditions and her methods and iconography became significant elements of modern Catawba pottery, including her method of pipe-making and her snake pitchers, based on traditional wedding jugs. Every single piece she made was fired in a traditional open, wood-burning pit. By the time of her death in the 1990s, pottery was no longer created by a few remaining elders and was being passed on to new generations. In 1997, Harris was selected for a National Heritage Fellowship by the National Endowment for the Arts, but she passed before it could be awarded.
Several of Georgia Harris’ pieces are included in “The Language of Clay” at the Museum, as well as stories and insight from past interviews with her and other Catawba potters. Come check it out Thursday through Saturday!
Until next week,
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.
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