Nampeyo (Hopi-Tewa), polychrome jar

Nampeyo (Hopi-Tewa), polychrome jar, c. 1930s, clay and pigment, 13 x 21 cm (National Museum of the American Indian, Smithsonian Institution), a Seeing America video

[0:00] [music]

Dr. Steven Zucker: [0:04] We’re in the National Museum of the American Indian, part of the Smithsonian Institution but in New York City, looking at a small piece of ceramic by a very well known Tewa-Hopi Native American artist named Nampeyo.

Dr. David Penney: [0:19] Her story really begins with the Pueblo Revolt of 1680. That’s when the Pueblos of the Rio Grande Valley kicked the Spanish out, but then they returned. And as a result, several refugees from that valley, several Tewa people, fled and sought refuge among the Hopi.

Dr. Zucker: [0:35] The Hopi embraced them. They offered them that refuge.

Dr. Penney: [0:38] The village of Hano, where Nampeyo grew up, was the Tewa village there at First Mesa.

Dr. Zucker: [0:43] First Mesa is one of the oldest continuously inhabited communities in what is now the United States. This is a community that is approximately a thousand years old.

Dr. Penney: [0:53] Nampeyo had a maternal grandmother who taught her the skills of pottery making.

Dr. Zucker: [0:57] But that grandmother was actually Hopi, not Tewa.

Dr. Penney: [1:00] Here lies a little bit of complication, but also, I think, the motivation for her genius. Her village, Hano, the Tewa village, manufactured a kind of plainware which is often cookware and highly regarded and traded. She was trained in the traditional Hopi ware, at that time was called “Polacca polychrome.” She excelled at it.

[1:19] A trading post opened close by to the mesa run by a guy named Thomas Keams. He sold it and became high demand, but there was some pushback from Walpi saying, “Well, these are our pottery designs, not yours.” They were uncomfortable with her capitalizing on that.

[1:35] Every family had their own designs, had their own rights to make pottery and collect clay from certain places so there were protocols about this. That encouraged Nampeyo to look elsewhere and expand her horizons.

[1:46] Also close by to First Mesa was an abandoned village. No one had lived there for hundreds of years called Sikyátki. There, she found shards of pottery painted in an old style that no one remembered anymore. She began to incorporate those designs into her pottery and made something very new. Today, it’s known as Sikyátki Revival Style.

Dr. Zucker: [2:06] Her skill as a potter and as a painter drew notice not only of the increasing number of collectors from Chicago and more Eastern cities that were able to now reach the Southwest with greater ease, thanks to, for example, the Santa Fe Railroad.

Dr. Penney: [2:21] The Southwest becomes a tourist destination. The United States is extremely interested, people in the United States, in exploring the continent’s past and the situation with American Indians in this beginning of the 20th century.

Dr. Zucker: [2:34] Part of the interest for Easterners was seeking authentic American experience. Something that was not based on European tradition.

Dr. Penney: [2:42] A critic in New York who wrote for the New York Daily Sun in the 1920s wrote about American Indian art, saying, “As Europe has its ancient Rome and ancient Egypt as the foundation of its art history, so we have our American Indians.”

Dr. Zucker: [2:55] But there’s a big difference because the ancient Romans and the ancient Greeks were long dead, but here, Native American communities were continuous.

Dr. Penney: [3:02] Well, this was the dilemma that the Native American world was facing with the United States all along, being cast as living fossils of savage culture, of primitive culture. They were not primitive at all.

[3:14] In fact, Nampeyo had a very modern sense of how she might fit into the American aesthetic at that time by creating these very innovative designs and marketing them in very interesting and unique ways.

Dr. Zucker: [3:24] She was really successful. What I’m seeing is this thin, delicate vessel with wide shoulders, this very narrow base that is not perfectly symmetrical — it was clearly not made on a wheel — and then it’s painted with this extraordinarily complex design. I can’t even imagine trying to apply that design onto this complex surface.

Dr. Penney: [3:45] It’s all handmade, in the sense that you’d really have to begin with the collecting of the clay. The reason why it has that distinctive yellowish-brown-orange color is because of the quality of the clay around First Mesa.

[3:56] She would have to process that clay, roll it out, build it up by hand with coils to create the shape, and then polish it to a high sheen to get that smooth surface, and then apply the pigment with a brush in that very meticulous way to create all those hatchings and cross-hatchings and evenness between them.

[4:13] This particular design is her own invention, and one that she passed along to her daughter, Fannie Nampeyo. By this point in 1930s, she’s working very closely with her daughter because her eyesight is failing.

Dr. Zucker: [4:24] We can see a kind of abstracted series of forms that resemble the wings of a bird, and if we look towards the bottom of the vessel, and also at its neck, we also see, in a redder color, waves.

Dr. Penney: [4:35] She referred to it and is remembered today as this migration pattern, where it suggested to her waves or wings of birds, and it relates to the Hopi migration stories, the traditional stories of coming up out of the earth and then getting onto the surface of this terrestrial earth and finding their homes where they are today, on the three mesas of the Hopi nation.

Dr. Zucker: [4:54] She was invited to live, later in her life, at the Grand Canyon at a place called Hopi House.

Dr. Penney: [5:00] In fact, you can visit Hopi House today. It’s at the El Tovar Hotel, right on the south rim of the Grand Canyon. The hotel was created by the Fred Harvey Company, which created a series of hotels, and they were actually provisioners for the railroad. They were heavily invested in tourism, so they featured a number of artists at Hopi House.

[5:17] Nampeyo was probably the most famous, but during the summer, they would install her there with her family, and you could watch her make pottery. She would bring clay from Hopi, and then you could buy not only her pottery, but Navajo rugs, pottery by other important artists, and experience something of the rich art traditions of the Southwest at that time.

Dr. Zucker: [5:35] So there is a kind of stress between the art that she’s producing, and the way in which that art is still framed by a kind of anthropological understanding.

Dr. Penney: [5:43] In this encounter between American Indians and this larger settler nation, the exchange of objects, particularly in the marketplace, became one way of managing relationships.

[5:54] Pottery, this traditional art form in the Southwest, appealed very much to Americans of the late 19th century–early 20th century, because of their interest in authentic materials and handmade crafts and the whole Arts and Crafts movement.

Dr. Zucker: [6:06] Well, this is a handmade object. This is a completely unique object in the world. By the late 19th century we were living in a culture where things were mass produced.

Dr. Penney: [6:15] So, Nampeyo and other artists of her generation were very astute in understanding that aesthetic interest of Americans, and creating objects to meet that market.

[6:23] [music]

Smarthistory images for teaching and learning:

[flickr_tags user_id=”82032880@N00″ tags=”Nampeyo,”]

More Smarthistory images…

Cite this page as: Dr. David W. Penney, National Museum of the American Indian, Smithsonian Institution and Dr. Steven Zucker, "Nampeyo (Hopi-Tewa), polychrome jar," in Smarthistory, September 13, 2018, accessed July 22, 2024,