Nampeyo (c. 1860–1942)

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Nampeyo (c. 1860–1942)

Hopi-Tewa potter. Name variations: Nampayu; The Old Woman; Snake Woman, Snake Girl or Tsu-mana. Born Nampeyo on the Hopi First Mesa called Hano, northeast Arizona, around 1860; died on July 20, 1942, in Hano; daughter of Kotsakao, also called Qotca-ka-o (a Tewa woman of the Corn Clan), and Kotsuema also called Qots-vema (a Hopi man of the Snake Clan); married Kwivioya, in 1879 (marriage annulled, date unknown); married Lesou, in 1881 (died 1932); children: (second marriage) four daughters, Kwe-tca-we, Ta-wee, Po-pong-mana, and Tu-hi-kya; one son, Qoo-ma-lets-tewa (died 1918).

Interest began in ancient (Sikyatki) pottery (1892); pottery noticed by visiting anthropologists, Dr. Jesse W. Fewkes and Walter Hough of the Smithsonian (1895–96); first exhibition of pottery at Field Museum in Chicago, Illinois (1898); exhibition and sales of pottery through Fred Harvey's (a commercial trading post), Grand Canyon, Arizona (1907); second exhibition in Chicago (1910); work continued while passing on techniques that begin "Sikyatki Revival" in pottery throughout Hopi tribe though she was blind by 1920.

Along the lonely back roads of northeast Arizona, mesas rise sharply in dramatic contrast with the vast plains of the high desert. Atop the mesas, when one looks closely, a village appears as if it had been carved from the giant clay formations. If visitors dare negotiate the insanely steep angle, a single mule trail will deposit them in one of the oldest surviving villages in North America. This is the Hopi village called Hano on First Mesa and the birthplace of a woman who became the finest Hopi potter of her generation, single-handedly starting what became a renaissance in Hopi pottery. Her name was Nampeyo.

She was a child of mixed heritage. Her mother's tribe, the Tewas, had migrated from New Mexico in the 17th century during the Spanish invasions. More warrior-like than the peaceful Hopis, the Tewas were welcomed to stay if they agreed to guard the Hopi against the Ute raiders. When Nampeyo was born 150 years later, around 1860, the Tewas and Hopis were living in peaceful co-existence while maintaining separate customs and languages. Thus, in the Hopi tradition, her paternal grandmother named her "Tsu-mana" (Snake Girl), but the Tewas referred to her as "Nampeyo" which also means Snake Girl or Snake Woman in their language. Because Tewa society is matriarchal, Nampeyo became a member of her mother's Corn Clan.

She learned her pottery-making skills from her Hopi grandmother. Pottery-making by southwest indigenous people dates back to at least 600 ce. Though the methods for constructing the pottery had not changed, the decorative elements and the ceramic styles had declined sharply by the mid-1800s because of the demise of the ancient pueblos, in particular that of Sikyatki.

Decorative elements that appear on the cookware or clothing are drawn from each tribe's unique religious beliefs or world views. When Nampeyo first began making her pots, Hopi motifs had been diluted by the influence of Spanish, Tewa or Zuni designs, most frequently "Mera," the rain bird. Even the clay used by the Hopi potters was inferior. Nampeyo's brilliance was not only her superior natural gifts as an artist, but her ability to recognize the importance of reclaiming the long-lost Hopi symbols. At the same time, she went beyond imitation and became inspiration for continuing generations of Hopi potters.

Nampeyo's skills were "discovered" by anthropologist Jesse W. Fewkes, director of the Hemenway archaeological expedition, around 1895. Fewkes had hired a team of native diggers, among them Nampeyo's husband Lesou, to excavate the site at Sikyatki. There they unearthed enormous amounts of shattered remnants of the ancient polychrome pottery. But Nampeyo and Lesou had already been collecting bits of ancient potsherds and working with ancient designs, and Fewkes noticed her interest in recreating the ancient designs. Because her artistic ability was superior to most of the potters he'd seen, Fewkes knew he was witnessing a rebirth of the ancient form.

Fewkes and Walter Hough of the Smithsonian Institution made sure that Nampeyo's work achieved recognition, and Hough purchased examples of her work for the museum's collections. Concurrently, Nampeyo began selling her wares commercially, first to the Keams Canyon post and then to the Fred Harvey Company which operated a chain of hotels and restaurants along the old Santa Fe railroad line.

In 1898, Nampeyo and Lesou were invited to exhibit her wares in Chicago by George A. Dorsey, curator of anthropology at the Field Museum of Natural History. She also continued her relationship with the Fred Harvey Company and, in 1907, was hired to exhibit and sell her pots at the company's Grand Canyon Lodge. In 1910, Nampeyo returned to Chicago for a second exhibition which again brought her publicity as well as patrons for her work.

Though Nampeyo was nearly blind by 1920, she continued to mold pottery, while her four daughters and Lesou, until his death in 1932, took over the job of painting the ancient designs. One of her daughters, Po-pong-mana , called "Fanny" in English, became a celebrated potter in her own right. Fanny passed her skills onto her daughter, also known as Fanny, who continued the artistic revival her grandmother Nampeyo had started over 100 years ago.


"An Appreciation of the Art of Nampeyo and Her Influence On Hopi Pottery," in Plateau: A Quarterly Continuing Museum Notes. Vol. 15. January 1943, pp. 43–45.

McCoy, Ron. "Nampeyo: Giving the Indian Artist a Name," in Indian Lives: Essays on Nineteenth- and Twentieth-Century Native American Leaders. Edited by L.G. Moses and Raymond Wilson. Albuquerque, NM: University of New Mexico Press, 1993.

Nequatewa, Edmund. "Nampeyo, Famous Hopi Potter," in Plateau: A Quarterly Continuing Museum Notes. Vol. 15. January 1943, pp. 40–43.

suggested reading:

Ashton, Robert. "Nampeyo and Lesou," in American Indian Art Magazine. Vol 1., no. 3. Summer 1976, p. 30.

Bunzel, Ruth. The Pueblo Potter. New York, 1969.

Kramer, Barbara. Nampeyo and Her Pottery. 1996.

Deborah Jones , freelance screenwriter, Studio City, California