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Hopi–Tewa potter Nampeyo (c. 1859–1942) was known as the finest Hopi potter of her generation. Her successful founding and maintenance of the Sityatki Revival Movement in ceramics not only breathed life back into an ancient art form, but also improved the economic standing of the Hopi–Tewa people and sparked a family tradition of pottery craftsmanship that has lasted generations.

Early Life

Nampeyo's story begins in Hano, a Pueblo established in 1696 by Hopi natives and Tewa refugees fleeing west from New Mexico after the Pueblo Revolt of 1680, during the Spanish invasions. Despite the fact that the Tewa were a warrior tribe, they were invited to remain in Hano to help protect the more peaceful Hopi villagers against raiders. By the time Nampeyo was born the two peoples were co–existing happily, having carefully maintained their individual languages and cultures despite frequent intermarriage.

The year of Nampeyo's birth is disputed—some scholars claim it was 1859, while others believe it was 1860—but the exact date of her birth is unknown. She was born in the Hopi–Tewa village of Hano, on the First Mesa in the Hopi Reservation in what is now Northern Arizona. A child of mixed heritage, her father Qotsvema (sometimes spelled "Kotsuema") was a Hopi farmer of the Snake Clan from the nearby village of Walpi. Her mother Qotcakao (sometimes spelled "Kotsakao") was a Tewa native of Hano believed to be from either the Corn or the Tobacco Clan.

Nampeyo was given the name "Tcumana" (Snake Girl) by her paternal grandmother, to honor her father's family clan, but her Tewa name Nampeyo (Snake That Does Not Bite) was more widely used because she lived at Hano among the Tewa people. The Tewa society operated under a matriarchy, and Nampeyo became a member of her mother's clan, with any man she married expected to join her mother's family in Hano, according to Tewa tradition. Not much is known about her early life beyond the fact that she spent a great deal of time at Walpi with her paternal grandmother, a respected potter, watching her shape the large water–carrying vessels called ollas. The matriarch recognized Nampeyo's talent early on, and encouraged the young girl to learn the trade.


Pottery had been an esteemed skill in Pueblo society for more than 2,000 years, but the potters that were working when Nampeyo was a girl had lost the creative spark that had given the work of their ancestors artistic value. Women were no longer decorating the vessels they made—their status as utilitarian objects classifying them as not worth the effort it would take to adorn them. Even the basic pots used to cook food and carry water were losing favor as modern materials like metal pots and china dishware made their way into Native American culture.

The Tewa women of Hano rarely decorated their pots, but the Walpi culture regularly applied a thick slip and painted designs based on tribal beliefs and symbols. Once fired, the pieces were called "crackle ware" because of the cracked finish. The Hopi images used by Nampeyo's grandmother were a mish–mash of Spanish, Tewa, and Zuni influence—the most common image being "Mera," the rain bird. Nampeyo was not only remarkable in the level of skill she showed early on, but also in her ability to recognize the importance of reviving the ancient methods and style for the future of her people. The integrity of the Hopi designs her grandmother used had become diluted by the imagery of surrounding cultures, and it was Nampeyo's desire to restore the purity of the designs she had seen on the shards of ancient Hopi ceramic wares.

As a girl, Nampeyo learned the conventional coil–and–scrape method that her ancestors had utilized. She learned that the first step to creating a pot was to prepare the clay. She would have collected shards of clay, ground them down and softened the mixture with water. A ball of clay prepared this way was then pounded into a circular base, with the sides of the vessel being built by coiling a rope of clay upon itself in a spiral. The shape of the pot was then decided and molded, smoothed with a stone, and covered in slip—a thin mixture of water and clay that acted like a glaze. At this stage, the vessel was painted using a chewed yucca leaf as a brush to apply brown and red pigments, then fired in a kiln made of rocks or animal dung.

Nampeyo would have initially made miniature vessels in order to practice the craft, working to make them larger as her skills developed. The young potter had great natural talent, and she combined this innate ability with a rigorous work ethic—quickly making a name for herself as the finest potter on the Mesa. As her grandmother grew older, Nampeyo often finished and sometimes decorated vessels that were shaped by the older woman—a process that would be echoed later in life by Nampeyo's own daughters and granddaughters.

Lived as a Potter

Throughout the 1880s, the National Museum in Washington, D.C. sent its people into the isolated Pueblo world to collect samples of Native artifacts and materials from cultures that they thought might be facing extinction. In 1875, members of the Hayden United States Geological Survey party were housed and hosted by Nampeyo's brother, Captain Tom, a village chief. A young Nampeyo, who kept house for her brother at the time, waited on the surveyors and interacted with them. Traveling with the group was renowned photographer, William Henry Jackson. Jackson was reportedly quite taken by Nampeyo, and he photographed the fifteen–year–old in the "squash blossom" hairstyle that was worn in two coils on either side of the head and indicated that she was old enough to marry. These photographs were the first taken of the young potter, but certainly not the last, and they initiated her exposure to the world that lay outside the Pueblo.

After a traditionally long engagement, Nampeyo married her first husband, Kwivioya, in 1879. They never lived together, and the marriage was later annulled because he was afraid that her beauty would make it impossible for him to keep other suitors away from her. In 1881 she wed her second husband, Lesou (sometimes spelled "Lesso"), a native of her father and grandmother's village of Walpi. They had four daughters: Kwetcawe (Annie Healing), Tawee (Nellie Douma), Popongmana (Fannie Polacca), and Tuhikya (Cecilia). They also had one son, Qoomaletstewa, who died in 1918.

In 1875, a trader named Thomas Kearn opened the Kearns Canyon Trading Post approximately 12 miles east of the First Mesa. The post became the first market for Nampeyo's work, and by 1890 she was creating crackle ware vessels of exceptional quality, a few of which featured the golden coloring that she later developed while studying the ancient techniques of the prehistoric, polychromatic Sikyatki style. Nampeyo became interested in the Sikyatki style in 1892 and her involvement escalated in 1895 when Jesse W. Fewkes, director of the Hemenway archaeological expedition, began an excavation of the Pueblo IV ruin at Sikyatki.

Fewkes hired a team of native laborers to help with the dig, one of which was Nampeyo's husband, Lesou. Sikyatki, a prehistoric Pueblo located at the base of the First Mesa and active from approximately 1375 to 1625, was a popular excavation site that produced close to five hundred mortuary vessels. Nampeyo came frequently to examine the potsherds that were unearthed by her husband and the other laborers—borrowing pencils and recording the classical artwork by making sketches on any scrap of paper she could find. Contrary to some accounts, most critics agree that Nampeyo rather than Fewkes was responsible for the revival of the ancient style.

The gifted artisan experimented with different clay types until she found which one fired the desired yellow that the ancient Sikyatki potters had preferred. Rather than make copies, Nampeyo practiced capturing the spirit of the classical style without technically repeating the design elements. Her work was later honored with its own name, and became known as "Hano Polychrome." Nampeyo's work attracted the attention of Smithsonian anthropologist Walter Hough that same year, and he bought a sampling of her pieces for the Smithsonian's private collection.

Nampeyo's first exhibition at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago, Illinois took place in 1898. American National Biography's Theodore R. Frisbie identified her "sense of freedom—a flowing quality—and the use of open space" as the elements that helped set her work apart from that of other native potters. She crafted a variety of vessels, from small seed jars and bowls to large storage jars, each decorated using her contemporary take on traditional design motifs such as curving lines, birds, and feathers. Drawing on the skills and work ethic she inherited from her grandmother, she dug and processed her own clay, and made her own pigments. She found that pots fired outside in sheep's dung and soft coal baked a rich, honeyed hue that provided the sought–after backdrop to the red and black designs. Occasionally a white slip was applied, producing a cream–colored vessel, and white accents were used to compliment the designs.

Nampeyo's insatiable thirst for and appreciation of the ancient forms was never slackened by the success of her own work. Even after she had established a name for herself as an artist in her own right, she continued the work of restoring the creative spirit of her ancestors, visiting excavation sites in Awatovi, Payupki, and Tsukuvi and studying the ceramic remains. She was photographed by most of the photographers who came through the area, and her image quickly became representative of the Hopi people. She appeared in guides, tour books, and posters displayed by the Santa Fe Railroad and sold her work in the Fred Harvey hotels and restaurants that dotted the Santa Fe Railway, constantly sought out to demonstrate her skills to artists and tourists alike.

Many of the other First Mesa women who supported themselves as potters grew jealous of the fact that Nampeyo's work was garnering significantly more financial success than their own. Rather than let this rift widen, Nampeyo offered to teach them her methods and designs. They accepted and began producing pieces in the Sikyatki style, raising their income and economic level as well, although Nampeyo's mastery and eye for beauty was never rivaled.

A to Z of Native American Women's Sonneborn describes Nampeyo's favorite vessel as "a wide, squat water jar with a nearly flat top and an open mouth. She usually placed her decoration in a thick band circling the shoulder of the jar and sandwiched between two black horizontal stripes." Large pots would bring her anywhere from two to five dollars from traders, who would then re–sell them for much more. It is said that even tourists with no artistic knowledge would choose her work over that of other potters purely on aesthetics alone. Nampeyo could not read or write, and as a result never signed her work. Fewkes occasionally worried that Nampeyo's pots so beautifully captured the spirit of the Sityatki style, that they might be sold by greedy traders as genuine prehistoric artifacts.

When the demand for her work soared, Nampeyo did her best to meet the need by decreasing the size of the vessels, and commissioning her husband and daughters to help her apply the designs. She left the reservation in 1905, and again in 1907 to demonstrate her talent in displays put on for tourists at Fred Harvey's Hopi House, a luxury hotel located in the Grand Canyon. By 1910, the Hopi potter had attained a glowing artistic reputation in Europe as well as the United States, and did her second Chicago exhibition in that year.

In a review of the 1910 exhibition at the United States Land and Irrigation Exposition in Chicago, the Chicago Tribune described Nampeyo as "the greatest maker of Indian pottery alive." In the years following the second Chicago exhibition, she was approached by a steady flow of visitors who would come to her home on the Mesa to watch her work and buy her wares. Smithsonian anthropologist Walter Hough said that Nampeyo's vessels "attained the quality of form, surface, fire change, and decoration of the ancient ware which [gave] it artistic standing." The onset of World War I significantly curtailed travel throughout the country, and by the time things settled and people began to return to Hano, Nampeyo had aged and her sight was deteriorating to near, but never complete, blindness.

A Legacy was Born

Before Nampeyo, the majority of the outside world thought of Native American ceramic wares as nothing more than charming Southwestern souvenirs. Nampeyo's mastery, however, made the world look at the craft of pottery with fresh eyes. Her efforts single–handedly elevated Hopi pottery to the level of an art form, raising the esthetics to a plateau that allowed the outside world to treat it with critical respect. A lack of written records has created dissension regarding the accuracy of much of the biographical information published about Nampeyo, but her status as the most significant Hopi potter is never disputed.

In 1974, the Muckenthaler Cultural Center in Fullerton, California presented a retrospective of Nampeyo's work, and major collections can be seen at the Denver Museum of Art in Colorado, the Milwaukee Public Museum in Wisconsin, the Gilcrease Museum in Oklahoma, and the Mesa Verde Visitor Center in Colorado. The potter's golden years were spent in the loving care of her children. It is said that she found child–like joy in simple things, and adored interacting with her young grandchildren. She formed pots almost to the day of her death, and allowed her family to decorate them in the style she had revived and perfected. Three of Nampeyo and Lesou's daughters—Kwetcawe (Annie Healing), Tawee (Nellie Douma), Popongmana (Fannie Polacca)—grew up to be respected potters in the family tradition.

Nampeyo remained a humble member of her community, despite international recognition, and took part in the everyday social ceremonies, work parties, and food exchanges of her village. She died July 20, 1942 in her home in Hano, her 70–year career inspiring hundreds of Pueblo potters, including at least 75 family members, to support themselves with their wares. Her artistry and skill also became a source of great pride for her people, and bred a new–found respect for Native American culture.


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