The Catawba are well known for their beautiful burnished pots. The Catawba pottery-making tradition follows an unbroken line from at least the Woodland period to today. During the 18th, 19th, and early 20th century pottery making and selling was often the only means of earning a living for the Catawbas. One of the first anthropologists to study Catawba pottery was Edward Palmer with the United States Bureau of Ethnology. He traveled to South Carolina in 1884. His collection of pottery, now in the Smithsonian Museum, is the oldest collection in the country. In 1888 MacDonald Furman sparked local interest in Catawba pottery through a series if newspaper articles.
We have a distinct Catawba pottery culture. The pottery tradition has been practiced the same way… since before there was the first European contact in this region.
Dr. Wenonah Haire
Tribal Historic Preservation Officer
Catawba potters use two traditional methods to construct their pots: the coil building technique and the pinch technique. To make a coiled pot, the potter starts with a small disk of clay to serve as the bottom of the pot. Next coils of clay are rolled out and stacked one on top of another on the base. The coils are smoothed upward to shape the pot and thin the walls.
To make a pinch pot, the potter uses a single lump of clay. The clay is shaped into a cylinder the size of a soda can. Then the potter pokes a finger into the middle of the cylinder and starts to widen and shape the pot.
Once the pot is constructed and usually once the pot is completely dry, the potter scrapes or carves the surface to remove all irregularities and to thin the walls of the pot. The last task is to rub the surface of the pot with a smooth rubbing stone. Often these stones are handed down from one generation of potter to the next. This is the process that gives Catawba pottery its beautiful polished surface. Finally the polished pot is fired in an open fire. Exposure to flames and smoke gives Catawba pottery its distinctive mottled appearance.
There are many traditional Catawba vessel forms. One of the best known and most important is the snake effigy pot – a traditional cooking pot. Other forms include water jugs, Indian head jars, gypsy pots, Rebecca pitchers, cupid and wedding jugs, and effigy pipes.
The Catawba Nation continues to have a flourishing pottery-making tradition. Over 100 tribal members make pottery, and the tribe is proud to have a number of master potters (both men and women) who guide and inspire young people. Master Potter Georgia Harris was awarded posthumously the National Endowment for the arts “Folk Heritage Award” in 1996. Other well known potters whose work is avidly sought by collectors include Sara Ayers (1919-2002), Evelyn George (1914-2007), Mildred Blue (1922-1997), Nola Campbell (1918-2009), Viola Robbins (1922-2010), and Earl Robbins (1922-2010).
If it wasn’t for our pottery, we would not be on the map today - because our pottery has kept us here. It’s who we are. The Catawba pottery is who we are.