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1860 - 1942

Nampeyo Hono Jar
Hano Polychrome Jar
by Nampeyo

To understand the Nampeyo phenomenon, it is important to set the stage. The major villages of the Hopi are on the tops of three finger-like projections at the southeastern end of Black Mesa, also called Coal Mine Mesa. Archeologist have determined that the Hopi people have been living in this arid, semi-desert area since around the 13th century. Their prehistoric ancestors have been traced as migrating down from cliff dwellings near Kayenta, just north of Black Mesa.

The first European explorers came into this country from the east, and for the sake of convenience called the three fingers First Mesa, Second Mesa, and Third Mesa. Actually, First Mesa is a precipitous, stand-alone mesa, a ship of the desert. It stands several hundred feet above the valley floor, the top being some 6,000 feet above sea level. Three small villages now occupy the top of First Mesa, the oldest is Walpi on the West, then Sichimovi in the middle, and Hano. (To see a living Anasazi village, visit Walpi. A tree-ring analysis dates this village as having started around 1400 AD.)

The art of pottery making came to the prehistoric Anasazi from meso-America, around 700 AD. The art progressed from a utilitarian grey-ware pinch-pot to more decorative ware, mostly black designs on white, prevalent around 1,000 AD. The use of colors, both as a base and as decoration, seems to have rapidly accelerated during the 11th through the 14th centuries. By the year 1400 AD, output was almost exclusively colored ware. This is true, not only of the Hopis, but all Pueblos.

Hopis Develop A New Form Of Pottery

The 14th century was an extraordinarily productive time for the Hopi potters. New clays and firing techniques were discovered, changing the relatively soft texture of the earlier pottery into a superb new texture, much smoother, much harder and more dense. Entering the 15th century with this new and better pottery, the Hopis experimented with a host of new ideas, including some daring departures from design symmetry, the incorporation of life forms and the development of artistic precision in the execution of both pots and decorations. This movement culminated in the development of Sikyatki Polychrome. (It should be pointed out that similar productivity has been discovered at several other pre-historic Hopi sites, including Awatovi and Jedito.)

Clay used in most parts of the Pueblo world, including the Rio Grande area, has almost always been too gritty or otherwise unsatisfactory to use for the finished surface of a decorated pot. To compensate, a much finer textured clay slip was applied to the surface and polished with a smooth stone, then the designs were painted onto the polished slip. The newly discovered Hopi clay turned out to be so smooth in texture and fired to such a beautiful range of colors, golden yellows to oranges, that there was no need for a covering slip. Thus designs could be painted directly on the polished body of the pottery.

Paint made from a mixture of boiled herbs or ground minerals, or colored clays could be painted directly onto the polished body of the pot itself. This new flexibility in materials significantly increased the size of their color pallets, reds, oranges, yellows, browns, as well as black. The new materials and the new artistry of the potters produced a genre of pottery called Sikyatki Polychrome. This style lasted until the late 1600's, at which time the quality of Hopi pottery began to deteriorate, and remained at a low level until Nampeyo, in the late 1800's, brought about the so-called Sikyatki Revival, or more recently and more aptly called the invention of Hano Polychrome.

The Sikyatki style is named after a prehistoric pueblo, which according to recent archeological dating, existed between 1375 and 1625. The ruins lie about 3 miles north of First Mesa. It was destroyed by intra-tribal rivalry. Shards of pottery quite similar to the Sikyatki pottery also have been found at the Hopi ruins of Jedito and Awatovi. (Awatovi, like Sikyatki, was destroyed by intra-tribal rivalry; however, much later, in 1700. Access to this area is extremely limited.)

Nampeyo was of Hopi-Tewa descent. In 1702, a group of Rio Grande Tewas was invited to the Hopi mesas to protect the locals from marauding Utes and Navajos. Although there has been a significant amount of intermarriage between the Hopis and the Tewas, the Hano villagers atop First Mesa still maintain a partial separatism, and some antagonism toward the Hopi.

The friction occurred when the Hopis, at first, did not accept the invited Tewas until they proved themselves in battle. After the Tewas drove off a Ute war party, the Hopis allowed the Tewas to form Hano. Later, the Hopi-Tewa began to settle at the base of the mesa, in Polacca.

NampeyouApplying Designs

Nampeyo Applying Designs
To Her Pottery
Photo by Edward S. Curtis, ca. 1905

And now we come to Nampeyo. Nampeyo's birth date is placed at somewhere around 1860, an approximation due to a lack of written records. She was born in Hano, the small Hopi-Tewa village on First Mesa. Her mother, White Corn, was a Tewa woman of the corn clan from Hano, and her father was Quootsva, a Hopi man from nearby Walpi. Since the Hopis are a matrilineal society, Nampeyo grew up with her mother's corn clan family in Hano. (Today, you can drive to the top of First Mesa and see the villages.)

Nampeyo The Girl

Hopi life, even from childhood, is filled with religious ceremonials, accompanied by dances performed by masked Katsina figures. Being a member of her mother's clan, Nampeyo no doubt became educated in the Hopi-Tewa Way, and participated in the rituals, herself. Along with her fellow Hopis, you can also imagine that she participated in the work of the village, helping with the annual corn crop, grinding corn, fetching water, potting, and housekeeping. By the time she was 15, following Hopi tradition, she was a productive member of her village. In one of the few snippets of information accredited to Nampeyo, she stated that she learned the craft of pottery making from her Tewa mother. So, as a young girl, Nampeyo started on her life's work as a potter.

An interesting side bar, by a quirk of fate William Henry Jackson, the noted western photographer, took pictures of 15-year-old Nampeyo. As a member of the 1875 Hayden Survey of Western America, Jackson and other members of the survey party took their meals at the home of Nampeyo's brother, Tom Polacca, one of the head men at Hano. Looking for "typical" Hopi subjects, with an introduction by her brother, Jackson photographed Nampeyo. She was described as a small woman, less that 5 feet tall, a gentle woman, gracious to outsiders.

Napmeyo Near Her Home

Near Her Home
In Hano, First Mesa

Nampeyo married when she was twenty, making the year ca. 1878. This was to her lifelong husband, Lesso, son of a Walpi elder. Following tradition, she and Lesso made their home near her mother in the Hopi-Tewa village of Hano. There, they had five children, Annie, 1884; William, 1887; Nellie, 1896; Wesley, 1899; and Fannie, 1900. They were together until Lesso died in 1930, 52 years later.

The same year as the Jackson visit, 1875, the first trading post was established on the Hopi Reservation, by Thomas V. Keam at a location about 10 miles east of First Mesa. The location became known as Keams Canyon (and the trading post is still there, operated by the McGee family). Tom Keam developed a great empathy for the Hopi people, and promoted the making and sale of Hopi artifacts to aid their meager sustenance. The Hopis, not of their own making, were being forced into a society that ran on dollars, and Keam provided one of their few opportunities for making dollars. Putting all this together, it is almost certain that Nampeyo was bringing pots to Keam and trading them for dollars.

The East Discovers The West

During the last two decades of the 19th century, Eastern America became fascinated by the newly discovered Southwest. After John Wesley Powell's adventures on the Colorado River were published in 1869, he continued research on the Colorado Plateau, publishing his findings. The Hayden and Wheeler geographical surveys in the same general area brought additional, often exaggerated stories of the West.

In 1884, the Army conquered Geronimo and ended once and for all the open warfare with conquered Indian tribes. Buffalo Bill started his Wild West Show in 1880, a show that ran for 20 years. Teddy Roosevelt came west in 1884, and began a long series of articles, books and press exploits publicizing the West.

During the winter of 1888-89, Richard Wetherill discovered the Cliff Palace and other Anasazi dwellings on Mesa Verde, Colorado. The American press built up a frenzy among the public that would have been tantamount to our own interest should today's astronauts bring back a Martian from the Red Planet. This all culminated in the October 12th, 1892 opening of the Columbian Exposition, a year-long world's fair featuring prehistoric and then-contemporary Southwestern Indians. All of this promotion further increased the demand for artifacts from the Hopi mesas, including Nampeyo's pottery.

The 1881 completion of the Santa Fe Railroad through Arizona brought even more activity to Hopi-land. Further, the Grand Canyon National Park was dedicated in 1908. The cap was perhaps the 1892-93 World's Colombian Exposition in Chicago. This was certainly a consideration when the Fewkes expedition began work.

By 1879, John Wesley Powell had become the first director of the Smithsonian's Bureau of Ethnology. Obviously motivated by his earlier experiences and observations going down the Colorado River, Powell believed that native people of the Southwest were soon to become extinct. He saw the obvious connection between the Hopi and Zuni villages and the prehistoric ruins found in the area's many cliff dwellings.

Collecting Becomes A Frenzy

His belief in extinction spurred Powell to initiate the immediate collection of artifacts from the Southwest, to preserve as much of the native material culture as possible, for future study by scientists. Thus, 1880 began a decade wherein literally tons of domestic clothing, basketry, kachina dolls, toys, religious objects, blankets, looms, cradleboards, gourds, dance masks, stone implements and pottery were scavenged from village households and excavation sites.

Focus of this acquisition binge was the Hopi and Zuni regions. Participants in this activity included not only the government, but many of the larger Eastern museums and universities. The frenzy reached across the Atlantic to European institutions. Even individuals acquired extensive collections. For example, Tom Keam sold his collection of some 4,500 ethnological specimens to Mary Hemenway (half of this collection was pottery).

Along with the acquisition activities came a stream of scientists trekking to the Hopi villages—anthropologists, archaeologists, ethnographers, artists, and photographers. They came by train to Holbrook or Winslow, and made the two-day, hard journey to the Hopi mesas.

Nampeyo's Work Becomes Recognized

Through this exposure, the quality of Nampeyo's work stood out so obviously that her artistry became the paradigm against which all others were measured. Thus, the decade of the 1880s saw Nampeyo reach her full flower. Through Thomas Keam, Nampeyo and other Hopi potters were making quantities of nonutilitarian pottery for trade. It was during this time that Nampeyo abandoned the Zuni-like pottery, common within the Mesas. (This pottery, Polacca Polychrome, was glazed with a white slip, that upon firing resulted in a crackled finish, rather ugly.) Nampeyo and her husband had visited the nearby prehistoric ruins, where Nampeyo saw the shards of the beautiful pottery made three centuries previously. Through her genius, she discovered the clay and how to form and paint it. She also began to use the beautiful motifs for ideas to use in her own pottery. Nampeyo's style was later to be called the Sikyatki Revival.

As part of the Southwest exploration binge, Jesse W. Fewkes arrived at First Mesa in 1891. Fewkes succeeded anthropologist Frank Hamilton Cushing as director of the Hemenway Archaeological Expedition. It was at this time that Fewkes first saw the abandoned ruins of Sikyatki, about three miles north of First Mesa. By Fewkes' account, he met Nampeyo at this time.

Fewkes, Sikyatki, And Nampeyo

Fewkes returned in 1895 and spent two months excavating the Sikyatki ruins. Using locally recruited Hopi men to do the excavating, Fewkes uncovered vast quantities of whole pots in varying forms (it is said over 500), all with the unique Sikyatki designs, painted directly onto a fine textured clay.

There has been a continuing, apocryphal story about Nampeyo and Lesso taking designs from the excavation at Sikyatki where Lesso was part of the excavation crew. Barbara Kramer, writer and chronicler of Nampeyo's life, attributes this disinformation to the pen of Fewkes. By the time he wrote his reports, Nampeyo had achieved fame within the Eastern establishment. Fewkes was trying to take some of the credit for Nampeyo's success. Kramer discovered no information to say that Lesso was was part of the crew, nor anything but a typical Hopi farmer and rancher.

No doubt, Fewkes activity must have caused quite a stir in the quite mesa communities. Most of the local residents probably visited the busy excavation site. Certainly Nampeyo must have revisited, if for no other reason that in her curiosity in pottery designs. However, Nampeyo had become a recognized potter by the time she was 20, some 10 years before Fewkes first visit to the Hopi mesas, so the Sikyatki designs were not new to her.

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Nampeyo Jar
Hano Polychrome

©MNA. All rights reserved.
From the Babbitt Collection.
Used by permission,
Museum of Northern Arizona.
Photo # 10098

Describing Sikyatki style, or more accurately, Hano Polychrome, in words is difficult. They are uniformly polychrome, employing vegetal and mineral paints that fire to the reds, browns, yellows and blacks. The designs employ graceful, curvilinear lines, well balanced, with frequent use of religious symbols. The base clays fire to an unusually smooth texture, with colors ranging from golden yellow, to orange, to light brown. Since the fired surface came out so smooth, no overall slip had to be applied to the overall surface prior to painting on the design.

At the time of Nampeyo's childhood, observers saw little difference between Hopi production and Zuni work. The main characteristic of Hopi pottery was a crackled, white slip covering the finished vessel, classed as Polacca Polychrome. Obviously, the slip and the base ceramic had different expansion characteristics, producing the crackled finish and an inferior looking pot. Prior to the Fewkes excavations, it was noted by several visitors that Nampeyo's work was significantly different and better than the average Hopi production. With her mother's help, the two had discovered the clay used by the ancient potters, a clay that fired to such a smooth surface that it required no covering of slip, just like the ancient Sikyatki ware. From her designs, it was obvious that Nampeyo had explored the ruins of Sikyatki and other nearby, deserted pueblos, and had found and based her style from the pre-1700 shards she had found. And, she had done this work before Fewkes had ever visited the Hopi area.

The Most Expert Potter–Nampeyo

Fewkes, himself, commented, "The most expert modern potter at East Mesa is Nampeyo, a Tanoan [Hopi] woman who is a thorough artist in her line of work." And sarcastically he continued, "Finding a better market for ancient than for modern ware, she cleverly copies old decorations, and imitates the Sikyatki ware almost perfectly. She knows where the Sikyatki potters obtained their clay, and uses it in her work." Again, as pointed out by Barbara Kramer, Fewkes was trying to take the mantle of her creativity upon himself.

It is important to realize the situation of the Hopis during the time of Nampeyo's productivity. The White Man, in Washington, had decided that the Hopis and other Southwestern Indians must become "civilized." Their intent was to make them all tax-paying, English-speaking, Christians. There was a total lack of understanding or concern about the folkways that had worked well for the Hopis for hundreds of years.

Finally, around 1900, the Whites gave up on converting the adults, and decided to start civilizing the children. This process constituted the physical "kidnapping" many of the children over the age of six and sending them to Indian Schools, mostly in California. They cut the children's hair in the White Man's fashion, a disgrace in Hopi eyes; punished them for speaking their native language; forbade their taboos; and did this over a period of many years. Needless to say, there caused great consternation among the parents, resulting in animosity that occasionally manifests itself even now.

And as additional insult, the American visitors brought with them diseases that decimated the population, including, influenza, small pox, tuberculosis, and trachoma (the disease that caused Nampeyo's blindness).

Nampeyo at Kiva

Nampeyo ca. 1918
Forming Jar for Photographer
at Kiva Near Her Hano Home.
Photo by J. R. Willis, Gallup,
Print by Walter Haussamen,
Courtesy John Kennedy.

Although Fewkes complained, he did not realize he was witness to the birth of a completely new thrust in Hopi pottery design. Nampeyo did not directly copy the Sikyatki, but rather employed her artistic genius to construct a whole new venue of forms and designs. Certainly Nampeyo's new designs used the old as a stepping stone, but not as a copy. Before 1900, it was mostly traders and anthropologists who knew of Nampeyo's pottery making. It was through Fred Harvey, Lorenzo Hubbell of Ganado, and other promoters that Nampeyo became known to the outside world.

Fred Harvey, The West's Great Promoter

At the turn of the century, the Santa Fe Railroad engaged the Fred Harvey Company to feed and house its passengers. To promote passenger service, the Fred Harvey Company became the first major purveyor of Indian handcrafts. Along with the railroad, itself, the Harvey company advertised and glamourized the West to Eastern tourists, thus generating traffic for their businesses. In 1901, the Santa Fe finished a spur to the Grand Canyon. They opened the El Tovar hotel on the edge of the canyon rim in January, 1905. Included in the construction was the Hopi House, a three-story, terraced structure, an adaptation of the typical Hopi dwellings. The Hopi House was designed to showcase demonstrations of Indian craft making, and to be a store for selling Indian crafts.

Primarily because of Nampeyo's reputation, the Fred Harvey people invited Nampeyo, with part of her family, to give demonstrations at Hopi House at its opening in 1905. This lasted until the spring planting season came, when the Nampeyo family left. The family again did demonstrations in the winter of 1907.

In 1910 the Santa Fe Railway (Fred Harvey) sent Nampeyo and Lesso to Chicago to make pottery at the Exposition at the coliseum. This and the two appearances at the Hopi House were pretty much the extent of Nampeyo's travels.

Nampeyou, 1920

Nampeyo, ca. 1920.
This was at a time
when her eyesight was failing.
Photo by Willis,
Print by Haussamen.

By 1915, Nampeyo had completed her classic period of producing a Hopi-Tewa art form. It is not known when Nampeyo ceased making her style of pottery. Certainly by 1915, the era was nearing an end. Neil Judd, the noted archeologist, reported that by 1920 Nampeyo was nearly blind, and that her daughters often helped by painting designs on her pottery. Even Lesso became part of the decorating team. Daisy Hooee, one of Nampeyo's granddaughter tells, "I learned from Nampeyo, and so did my mother, Annie. Everybody painted for her—Nellie, Fannie and my mother helped her a lot, painted those little fine lines. Her husband, Lesso, he helped, he sure could paint, that old man." (From Rick Dillingham's "Fourteen Families.")

Nampeyo passed away in 1942, ending an era in Pueblo pottery. Lesso's death in 1932 went unnoticed by the world.

Sikyatki Revival And Nampeyo's Hono Polychrome

Nampeyo is given credit for starting the revival of Hopi pottery, the so-called "Sikyatki Revival." She was influenced by designs from not only prehistoric and historic Hopi, but cultures other than Hopi. In a sense, she revived Hopi pottery; but since her work and pottery of today differ greatly from that of the Sikyatki periods, she is credited with the birth of contemporary Hopi pottery, now called Hano Polychrome. Without Nampeyo, Hopi pottery may have been only an art form of the past.

Today, the matriarch of the Nampeyo family would be justifiably proud of the fine lineage of potters that have succeeded her, starting with her three daughters, and now extending to her great grandchildren. The Nampeyo name has become magic in the world of Native American art.

Nampeyo Designs "Owned" By The Family

The descendants continue the legacy of Nampeyo by adapting her designs to their own work and interpretations. The three designs that they claim to belong to the Corn Clan are the Eagle Feathers design, the Migration Design and the Spider Design.

For Nampeyo, pottery making was a family industry. Everyone pitched in to meet the demand. Since pottery was not signed during Nampeyo's most productive period, other documentation has to be used to tell if the piece is really Nampeyo's, i.e., diaries, sales slips, etc. Thus, you frequently see the words, "attributed to Nampeyo," when a piece comes from that period in her style. Even then, it is difficult to say that the piece is all Nampeyo, since her husband and her daughters all pitched in with the work.

Nampeyou, Eagle

Eagle Feather Design
Attributed to Nampeyo, ca. 1900-1910.
Photo by Ken Matesich,copyright
Arizona State Museum.(ASM #E-8996)

The Eagle Feathers design typically occurs on a flat topped jar, with a red square surrounding the opening. The four sides of the square form the base of a design that starts with a square and goes on the the eagle feathers. Between the feathers, the design was originally a head-on view of a bird with the head in the center and the wings outstretched. It has evolved into only the wing portion, which now becomes a decorative swash. The design is an adaptation of a motif found in the Sikyatki ruins. This photo is from the Matthew Howell collection at the Arizona State Museum.

Nampeyou, Migration

Migration Design
Attributed to Nampeyo, ca. 1930.
Photo by Ken Matesich, copyright
Arizona State Museum. (ASM #GP52534-x-2)

According to records, Nampeyo did not often make this design, because of the fine-line detail. The daughters, Annie, Nellie, and Fannie all did this design. Barbara Kramer, a Nampeyo scholar, attributes this piece to granddaughter, Rachael. As Nampeyo's eyesight failed, she would make the pots, and family members would decorate them. Fannie was a major participant in decorating the pots during the latter years of Nampeyo's life. There has been some dispute about the origination of this design. However, Dextra Nampeyo Quotskuyva has produced copies of sketches made by Nampeyo's husband, Lesso, copying a design found in Sikyatki. (These drawings also illustrate that Lesso was an artist in his own right, and it is known that he frequently painted designs on pots.) The sharp triangles are said to be bat wings, also sometimes claimed to be bird wings. The fine lines are said to represent the paths taken by the clans as they migrated to the Hopi mesas.

Nampeyou, Spider

Spider Design
Attributed to Nampeyo, ca. 1900-1910.
Photo courtesy
Museum of Indian Arts and Culture
Museum of New Mexico.

The spider design is a favorite of modern family potters, particularly Steve Lucas. Its simple, flowing grace illustrates the artistry of Nampeyo. She once remarked that space was as important as the painted design. This storage jar design illustrates her concept. Nampeyo painted variations of the spider design in bowls and on jars most frequently during the first decade of the century.

Recommended Reading

"Nampeyo and Her Pottery," Barbara Kramer. $39.95. Cloth: 0-8263-1718-9. Kramer provides the only reliable biography of this famous Hopi artist.
"Fourteen Families in Pueblo Pottery," Rick Dillingham. $39.95. Paper: 0-8263-1499-6. If you have an interest in collecting Pueblo pottery, this is your No. 1 source for tracking the recognized artists.

See your local book seller, or order direct from the University of New Mexico Press, 1-800-249-7737.

References and Credits: Kramer, Barbara, "Nampeyo and Her Pottery," University of New Mexico Press, 1996. Dillingham, Rick, Fourteen Families In Pueblo Pottery, University of New Mexico Press, 1994. No Author Credits, Arizona Highways, 1974 Series On Southwestern Arts And Crafts, February; On Fewkes re Sikyatki; and May On Pottery. Ashton, Robert, Jr., "Nampeyo And Lesou," American Indian Art, Vol. 1, No. 3, October, 1976. Bartlett, Katharine, "A History Of Hopi Pottery, Museum of Northern Arizona," Plateau, Vol. 49, No. 3, Winter, 1977. Bartlett, Katharine, "Contemporary Hopi Pottery," an update from 1977, Harlow, Francis H., "A History Of Hopi Pottery," An Introduction To Hopi Pottery, Museum of Northern Arizona, 1978. Dittert, Alfred E., Jr., and Plog, Fred, Generations In Clay, Pueblo Pottery of the American Southwest, Northland Press, Flagstaff, AZ, 1980. Fewkes, Jesse Walter, "Designs On Prehistoric Hopi Pottery," Dover Publications, Inc., 1973. This is an unabridged republication of two articles by Fewkes published in Reports to the Bureau of American Ethnology, Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, written in 1895-96, and 1911-12, respectively. Gault, Ramona, Artistry In Clay, A Buyer's Guide To Southwestern Indian Pottery, Southwestern Association for Indian Arts, Inc., 1995. Trimble, Stephen, Talking With The Clay, School of American Research Press, 1993.

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