Sacred Clay: The History of Ancient Clay And Celebrating the Artistry of Margaret Tafoya, Keeper of Pueblo Culture

Mar 24, 2024 | Art Insights

Written By: Chiara Atoyebi

The womb and the sand Merge to converge and conjoin the womb-man Where the sins of the mother Create vessels of culture 

Gender non specifiedthe dirt of the oceans give it structure

She spins the wheel and spins the wheel Placing the world at her heel 

–La Luz, The Womb and the sand

I fell in love while taking a ceramics class at a local community college. I immediately felt the power of working with clay and connected with its ability to bring out a deep understanding of the stories and history that had been imprinted on it over time.

Ceramics and pottery making have roots that go back thousands of years. I first became interested in pottery during the writing of my graduate thesis which was based on Womanist Theology, a discipline of Feminist study popularized by former ethicist Dr. Katie Geneva Cannon as well as my own syncretized methodology of Curanderismo plant medicine. 

The latter being something that comes naturally to me. Similarly to Cannon, I explored women of the Bible but decided to explore the rituals of their domestic life as a form of folk medicine and liberation, which naturally led to pottery making. For example, while studying the bloodline of Abraham and Keturah, I was guided to the pottery found in the Midianite region, which is now modern-day Saudi Arabia. Many of the same techniques employed by potters today have roots in this ancient practice. 

Midian Village Kiva, Photo in the Public Domain

However, 3000 years B.C.E. the Mayans were creating utilitarian masterpieces from clay such as pinch pots, clay slabs, and coiled vases. As a beginner potter, I was also taught these techniques. This pure material is a free resource that can be found in many of our backyards if you dig deep enough. I highly recommend trying your hand at working with clay, even if it’s just for a brief period. It can be a great way to ground yourself and find a sense of calm.

“You have to have a good heart when you sit down to make this pottery; you have to live a good life. The pottery knows.”

Margaret Tafoya 

Margaret Tafoya. Photo Courtesy of Wikipedia

In the realm of ceramics, several remarkable women have left an indelible mark on the medium, shaping its evolution and pushing its boundaries. One of those remarkable women is Margaret Tafoya.

Margaret Tafoya was born on August 13, 1904, in Santa Clara Pueblo, New Mexico. Tafoya, a Native Pueblo Indian, is known for her traditional pottery. Her mother, Sera Fina or “Serafina” was also a potter who gained recognition for making over-sized blackware and redware pots. Black ware pottery is a reduction method created by the Pueblo Indians, and is pottery “produced with a smooth surface, with the designs applied through selective burnishing or the application of refractory slip,” according to Wikipedia. Some of these pots were so large, only one a year could be made. Tafoya’s father, Jose Geronimo Tafoya was also an artisan, but largely took charge of cultivating the family’s food and firing the pots when necessary.

Pueblo Indians Selling Pottery. Photo In the Public Domain

For over 1,000 years, pottery held significant importance as a trade commodity among the Rio Grande pueblos, as evidenced by archaeological findings reflecting its widespread use in the region. Even with the arrival of the Spaniards and other Europeans in the sixteenth century, pottery trade persisted and many of the same techniques found in Tafoya’s work have a similar look and feel of a mixture of Mayan and ancient Midianite pottery.

Midian pottery, which stems from the Midian region, now modern-day Saudi Arabia, stands out due to its distinct characteristics influenced by the region’s history, culture, and natural environment. Some notable attributes of Midianite pottery styles include:

Geometric Patterns: Midianite pottery is renowned for its intricate geometric patterns, drawing inspiration from Islamic art and architecture. These designs harmoniously blend shapes and symmetrical patterns.

Nature-Inspired Designs: Many styles of Midianite pottery draw inspiration from nature, incorporating motifs such as palm leaves, flowers, and animal designs. These patterns mirror the varied landscapes and rich biodiversity of the region.

Vibrant Colors: Midianite pottery is distinguished by a vibrant color palette achieved through the utilization of natural pigments and glazes, infusing the pottery with a sense of vibrancy and liveliness.

Tsirege Petroglyph depicting Awanyu. Photo in the Public Domain.

The Tafoya family’s mastery of traditional techniques, such as coil building and stone polishing, combined with her innovative approach to form and design, earned her widespread recognition as a master potter. Over time, their work caught the attention of the owner of The Royal Gorge, Colorado. The Tafoya’s developed a relationship with the owner who hired the family for summer residencies to perform ceremonial dances and sell their pottery to guests. This was a great opportunity for the family to showcase their culture and art to a new audience.

Tewa Hopi Potter of Nempayo Pueblo decorating pottery in Arizona. Photo Found In the Public Domain.

Pueblo History and The Mass Production of Pottery

After the Santa Fe Trail was established in 1821, traditional pueblo-made pottery was gradually replaced by mass-produced items. Subsequently, during the 1950s there was an increased interest and awareness of Native American art which led to a surge in pueblo tourism. This meant that the Tafoya family, who were known for their pottery-making skills, did not have to travel as far to sell their wares. They were able to showcase their beautiful pottery to a wider audience in Gallup, New Mexico, at the  Santa Fe Indian Market, and as a result, their reputation as skilled artists grew.

Wedding Vase, c. 1970, by Margaret Tafoya. Photo Found In the Public Domain.

In the 1960s and 1970s, Tafoya’s pottery became synonymous with traditional Native American art. Her pieces often featured, the Tafoya family’s signature trademarks such as the “bear paw” motif and deeply carved pueblo symbols like the Avanyu (water serpent) and kiva steps around the shoulder of their jars.

Margaret Tafoya, a WCA Lifetime Achievement Award winner and traditional Pueblo Indian potter, honored her mother’s traditions by becoming a prolific Indigenous potter elevating and melding the craft of pueblo pottery to high art—an achievement and practice her children and family continue today. Her commitment to preserving and revitalizing traditional Pueblo pottery techniques brought notoriety to Native American ceramics, and to the realm of fine art–cementing her legacy as a pioneer in the field.