When Spanish soldier Hernán Gallegos traveled to the Rio Grande valley in 1580 as part of a small expedition from presentday Mexico — then known as New Spain — he was struck by the skill of the local artisans.
“The inhabitants have a great deal of crockery, such as pots, large earthen jars, and flat pans, all decorated and of better quality than the pottery of New Spain,” he wrote.
More than 400 years later, Native American arts and crafts continue to impress visitors to the state. Members of New Mexico’s 19 pueblo tribes, along with those from the Navajo Nation, produce sought-after pottery, jewelry and textiles.
Pottery is the most widely practiced of the Pueblo arts, according to Felipe J. Estudillo Colon, Outreach Education Coordinator at the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center in Albuquerque.
“In the Pueblo tradition, pottery dates back almost 3,000 years,” he says. “There are both utilitarian and ceremonial, decorative wares.” Each pueblo has its own signature style. Colon provides the following guidelines.
Acoma potters produce their famous thin-walled pottery from the brilliant white clay found on the pueblo. Pottery is typically decorated in red and black; common design motifs include rainbows, parrots and geometrical patterns.
The utilitarian pottery from the Picuris Pueblo rewards a closer look, as the micaceous clay used in the pots gives off a subtle glitter from small chips of mica embedded inside it.
Jemez potters use a technique called sgraffitto (from the Italian word for “scratched”) to incise a pattern through the surface, revealing the differently colored body beneath.
Though one of the smallest pueblos, San Ildefonso has produced a number of worldfamous artists, including the late Maria Martinez. The pottery’s characteristic black-on-black, polished-on-matte appearance is created by smothering the flame during firing.
Zia Pueblo pottery hews closely to its traditional roots with softly sanded, buffcolored pots featuring brown or black decorative elements like the Zia bird and the familiar sun symbol.
Zuni potters often add clay relief figures such as the water serpent to the outsides of their vessels.
The Navajo are known for red-brown pottery with minimal surface decoration. In recent decades, the Navajo have revived the production of mud toys: hand-sculpted, painted clay figurines originally intended as toys for the children.
Laguna pottery resembles that of Acoma, its neighbor to the southeast, with bolder geometric patterns and clay that is tempered with sand rather than old pottery shards. In the 1960s, Helen Cordero of Cochiti revived the Storyteller figure — a seated man with a number of children on his arms and lap. Located between Albuquerque and Santa Fe, Kewa Pueblo is known for large, thickwalled jars and bowls, painted mostly in black geometric designs on a cream background.
Taos Pueblo’s artisans add a high polish to their utilitarian, micaceous clay cookware.
Santa Clara is known for blackon-black work, with deeply carved designs. They also make polished red pots.
For centuries, Native American artists have taken advantage of the area’s abundance of natural materials like turquoise to create dazzling jewelry.
“Jewelry has been made by the pueblos, in particular Kewa, throughout history,” says Shelby J. Tisdale, director of the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture in Santa Fe. “The Navajo started working in silver in the 1850s. Today both the Pueblos and Navajos work in silver, gold, turquoise and coral as well as with other gems. There is a lot of crossover among the tribes in terms of materials and designs.”
Tisdale offers this information.
At Kewa, jewelers make heishi (pronounced “hee shee”) necklaces by drilling and grinding pieces of shell into beads.
Squash blossom necklaces, typically made from silver with turquoise inlay, and concho belts — leather belts adorned with oval pieces of silver and gemstones — are among the popular jewelry items made by the Navajo.
Zuni Pueblo artists are renowned for their petit point jewelry made from small, hand-cut stones.
Textiles and more
Pueblo weavers were fashioning textiles from cotton and other plant materials hundreds of years before the Spanish arrival. After the Spanish introduced sheep to the area, wool started to replace cotton in Pueblo and Navajo textiles.
“The Navajo are known for their beautifully woven wool blankets, serapes, rugs and dresses,” says Tisdale. “The Pueblos are known for their embroidered cotton dresses, shoulder blankets, or mantas, and kilts, belts and sashes.”
Pueblo textiles are more difficult to find than pottery and jewelry, as they are usually made only for use within the Pueblo. There are some Pueblo weavers who sell their pieces at art markets and galleries, says Colon.
Ohkay Owingeh — formerly known as San Juan Pueblo—is home to an arts and crafts cooperative where visitors may watch Pueblo woman create textiles and other items.
The Navajo learned weaving from the Pueblo Indians in the 17th century and incorporate both Pueblo and Spanish styles into their rugs.
Other notable arts and crafts items made on the Pueblos include drums from Cochiti and Taos, glasswork from Isleta, and baskets from various locations.
“Basketry is made by all of the Pueblos; however it is almost exclusively made for ceremonial use and is generally not sold to the public,” says Colon. “Tourists may on occasion find some red willow, yucca or pine needle baskets for sale from the Sandia, Hopi or Ysleta Del Sur Pueblos.”
Regardless of what you choose to purchase, buying Native American art provides a unique opportunity to meet the artist and learn the story behind the piece.
“The best recommendation I can give for buying art is to spend time talking with the artisan,” says Melvin Juanico, an Acoma Pueblo potter. “Ask questions in reference to how it’s made, and what the designs represent.”
“Most artists are open to questions,” adds Colon. “You get to go home with a great piece of art and a great story about the piece.”