Catawba Potters Preserve Ancient Tradition

American Artisans, Hometown Heroes, People
on June 10, 2001

In her cozy trailer on the Catawba Indian Nation Reservation, a few miles southeast of Rock Hill, S.C., Caroleen Sanders is baking five pieces of pottery to harden and color them. The baking will take all day, so the potter was up before dawn.

Its time-consuming, Sanders says with a sigh. Thats why I try to bake several pieces at once.

The next morning in another part of the reservation, Florence Harris Wade, a retired textile worker, talks about some of her potterysmall, delicately sculpted face pipes and wedding jugslaying on the kitchen table of her modest home. Wade has made pottery since age 8.

As a child, I would sit in the kitchen and watch my sisters work the clay, Wade recalls. I wouldnt dare touch the clay because I knew how special it was.

Sanders and Wade are artistsand part of a cultural tradition that can trace its history for certain to pre-Colombian timesbefore A.D. 1492and perhaps as far back as 2,400 years before Christ. An estimated 50 of the 2,100 members of the Catawba Nation are potters, ranging in age from their late 30s to 87.

The oldest, most experienced craftsmen proudly hold the distinguished title of master potter.

They get the title by mastering every technique a Catawba potter can learn, explains Billy Anne McKellar, archivist of the Catawba Nation and herself a potter.

These techniques include firing, shaping, and designing the pottery, and rubbing it to its finished appearance.

Master potter is a title Sanders hopes to achieve someday, which would be quite an accomplishment, since she became serious about pottery only in 1994.

I was exposed to pottery all of my life and even collected it, she explains. I just knew that some day I would make it myself. Then one day, Earl Robbins, my uncle, gave me some clay and challenged me to do something with it.

Three days a week, Sanders works as a hairstylist in nearby Concord, N.C. The rest of her time is devoted to pottery. She remembers her mother making pottery when she was growing up and then trading the pieces for milk or selling them to buy clothes for the family.

I feel a spiritual connection to my family and my people when Im making pottery, Sanders says.

Sanders is not the typical Catawba potter. She likes to use sunflowers and other original designs and experiment with different techniques, such as making human sculptures, which arent found in traditional Catawba pottery as are the pipes and jugs.

But thats perfectly okay with the tribe. Caroleen brings a refreshing and unique perspective to our pottery, and she has done exceptional work in creating sculptures of several of our leaders, explains Winonah Haire, director of the ongoing Catawba Cultural Preservation Project.

Each potter has his or her own unique style, Haire says. One must realize theres not just one way to make a traditional piece and that evolving contemporary pieces have their place in one of South Carolinas truly indigenous art forms.

Wade is a traditional potter. She remembers collecting the clay herself from nearby Van Wyck in her younger days.

The primary clay is the smooth pipe clay, which is used for smaller objects, such as the pipes Wade likes to make. (Pipes were once actually used for smoking but are now ceremonial.) The secondary clay, the gritty pan clay, is used as a strengthener. The pan clay is mixed with pipe clay to make the larger objectsthe jars and cooking pots Sanders prefers.

Like other Catawba potters, Wade and Sanders have found a growing market for their art. Whereas once the pottery appealed only to a few American Indian art collectors, the craft is now attracting a national audience.

Today, Catawba pottery can be found in several museum collections, including the Smithsonian and the South Carolina State Museum. And such famous figures as former Presidents Bush and Reagan own pieces. I know a mayor in Germany who has bought my pottery, Wade says proudly.

A piece can fetch anywhere from $30 to $500, but for the potters, their craft is about tradition and their ancestors, not money.

Its the cultural glue that holds the Catawba Nation together, Sanders says. Its the most representative part of our culture.