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A Philosophy of Navajo Pottery: Earth, Wind, Fire and Water
Below is an excerpt from a lecture given by Alan Jim, a Navajo man who teaches pottery at
Greyhills Academy High School in Tuba City. Read his lecture as an introduction to Navajo
philosophy.
I recently took my upper division students to a couple who are Navajo potters up near Cow
Springs, Silas Claw and his wife Bertha. And he told us some of the things that Navajo people
talk about with their pottery. He said that to be able to get a piece of dirt and to shape it into
something is sacred. To have a thought and make it into a creation is almost like how a baby is
formed and develops inside its mother. It is almost nothing, then the womb starts to bring forth
this life. So, you too, as creator, make something out of nothing and that is very sacred. So, I want
you to think about pottery in this sense. And so as we go through this process of creating pottery
they say that we go through a creation that is both male and female. The way I was told is that
when we take clay we want to give a little something back to Mother Earth for this precious gift
of the clay. Some of the things we can do is bless ourselves down, a prayer or a song is offered.
The objects to be used are blessed. One of the things that is offered as a gift to that area.
"The clay then is in a rock hard form. When you find the clay it is kind of like finding yourself
and developing yourself. Silas said that sometimes when they find the clay, it isn't ready to form.
They have to work with the clay, have to add things to it, have to take things from it. After they
crush it they pass it through a filtering system. It is kind of like a cleansing process. It gives you a
chance to re-evaluate yourself: 'Well, I don't need this, I don't need that part of my life.' Clay is the
same way with all the impurities. What we might need to do--and what Silas said--is he went over
to the highway construction yard and got some really fine black cinder and added it to the clay
and that is what gave the clay the body to stand up. So this is probably what is needed for this
clay. It is what in ceramics is called grog. You will see that some Navajo people get little pieces
of pottery and add to their clay. That helps the clay to get more sticky and strengthens the body.
So, we filter out all the impurities and add what is needed for strength, as we do in our lives.
"The next thing they do is they wet the clay down. When you
work with the clay and you have a lump of clay -- just as a
painter would do with a blank piece of canvas -- in your mind
just millions and millions of electrodes are firing off. We call it
brainstorming. In the Navajo way we say that part of the
creation is inside, in our mind, it is the imagination. It is the
female part of you and given to you by the creator. It is a
gift. So, once you have figured out what you are going to
make, what do you do? You roll out the clay or you pinch it
or coil it. Once you have begun that process we say that is
the male part of creativity. Male and female always. You're
doing the male part when you make the pots. Now, one thing
you have to find is that it is you and the clay. Some of you may
have gotten the clay too wet. What happens when clay gets too
wet? It gets like a wet noodle. You stand it up and it flops
around. Just kind of flops around. Or, if your clay gets too dry,
it becomes too stiff to work, it cracks, we become frustrated.
But, again, you have to find that balance in life. Once you get that balance and allow the clay to
work with you, then the beauty starts, the creation happens. As I have watched Navajo potters,
they really take their time once they set one coil on there, checking all the way around, making
sure it is smoothed out, making sure the clay is the same thickness all around, not too thick, not
too thin, that it is nice and consistent. So, again, that reflects on life. finding that fine line of
balance.
"Everything is done the way it was taught about life -- a life that has smoothness. It is the same
way in pottery -- once you find that smoothness, you have harmony and balance. The offering of
prayers and songs make life a little bit easier, especially when someone is challenging you.
"If you have done everything that was told to you to achieve balance, then the true test of life is
the process that in pottery we call firing. Some of my students will say, 'When are we going to
burn our pots, or bake our pots?' The proper terminology is 'firing.' So firing is the test whether
you have walked in balance with your clay. If you have walked in balance with it, everything is
consistent; it is just great. The test is the firing; the pot should come out just beautiful. A lot of
you have gone to the trading post and seen that most of the Southwest people make pots. I'm
going to pass this pot around. Feel the thickness, the smooth surface, no cracks. Once we have
gone through the firing, we know that we can withstand the test--that your virtues are intact.
"Here, in the pot, in the Navajo way, they say that four of
the elements water, earth, fire and air are in the firing.
Water and earth in the clay, air and fire in the firing. All
four are important to the creation of the pot. So, if you look,
you may see that some pots are blessed by the Creator and
you will get these black marks which are called by the
Navajo "fireclouds".
So they say this is a very sacred blessing. Hopefully, some of
you will be blessed with these marks on your pot. I want you to
experience the wholeness of what pottery has to offer you,
teaching about life. You, in that sacred manner. Silas once told
us during the time we visited him, he said one of the things
potters do, if you have your pieces out and they are still in
production, if someone comes to your door and knocks, they
are not to see your pots. You must put them all away, but once
they are inside, visiting, get a piece of the wet clay and bless
them. Give them a piece of Mother Earth. So, even the potter
holds this in reverence, with sincerity. This is just a little
something that I wanted you to have before we go outside to
test your pots, to fire them.
Reference: Alan Jim (2002). ArtsWork, Navajo Pottery, Lesson 3: The Philosophy of Navajo Pottery
Making. Retrieved February 2009, from Arizona State University, Herberger College of the Arts website:
http://artswork.asu.edu/arts/students/navajo/lesson3.htm
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