Treasures from the Basement: Pottery of the Hopi Nation

Largest and western-most of the Puebloan reservations, the Hopi Nation is an island of land in northeastern Arizona surrounded by the sprawling Navajo Nation and centered on the three mesas that comprise the traditional home of the Hopi people. The modern Hopi are most likely descended from the ancient Sinagua people, who made this area their home well into pre-historic times, and ancestral Puebloan populations who migrated there during the decline of their classical period. While the dynamics of this cultural confluence are not entirely clear, both of these ancient cultures shaped what is unquestionably one of the most iconic pottery traditions in the southwest.

The Sityatki Revival

The Hopi mesas produced fine pottery during the Sinagua period that only developed further after the arrival of ancestral Puebloan migrants, see the representative pieces in this previous article. However, as it was for most of the pueblos, centuries of cultural suppression following the arrival of the Spanish were not kind to traditional artisans. Since the mesas are particularly isolated from other pueblos, and surrounded by a variety of threats both new and old (the Spanish, Navajo and Apache), the Hopi were largely unable to continue trading as before and thus pottery production went into a steep decline, almost disappearing by the end of the 18th century.

Intriguingly, the resurrection of pottery as a major art form in the modern Hopi Nation came not from the ancient village of Old Oraibi on Third Mesa, but from the village of Hano on First Mesa. The vast majority of the Hopi Nation speaks the traditional Hopi language, a Uto-Aztecan tongue closely related to that spoken by the Todo O’odham and other groups further to the south and west (likely a result of their Sinagua heritage), but Hano is a Tewa-speaking village.  Founded by refugees from the Rio Grande Valley pueblos fleeing the Spanish reprisals for the revolt of 1680, Hano is integrated with Hopi society in many respects, though it retains the language of its progenitors.

Utilitarian pottery was, of course, still produced at Hano in the late 19th century, as elsewhere in the Hopi Nation, and the village of Polacca produced a polychrome style based on their cultural exchange with the Zuni, but the iconic Hopi style was born when a local trader suggested to Hano potters that they attempt to replicate pottery from the abandoned pre-contact pueblo of Sityatki nearby. The rest is not only history, but a vibrant tradition that is alive and well to this day.

The Nampeyo Dynasty

There are many significant families in Pueblo pottery given the art form’s traditional transmission from mother to daughter, but few surnames loom larger than the Nampeyos of Hano. Their matriarch, who would come to influence and define the quintessential Hopi style, was born as Num-pa-yu (1859-1942) and was likely one of the original Hano potters who began replicating the archaic designs from the Sityatki ruins. When the Smithsonian excavated Sityatki in 1896, Num-pa-yu’s husband was one of the workmen at the site and she had ample occasion to study the more complete specimens that were unearthed. It was also her innovation to drop the white slip that was a holdout from the Polacca style and let the distinctive yellow-orange sunset patina of the local clay serve as a background as the ancients had done.

Num-pa-yu’s descendants took her name as their surname, in a slightly altered form, and they maintained her legacy with gusto. Over the course of six generations, the family has produced at least eleven highly-accomplished potters who have all expanded upon and refined the classic Sityatki revival style in their own way. Today, the family’s pottery continues to be some of the most sought-after by collectors.

Myrtle Young

(1904-1984)

As iconic as the Sityatki revival style is, Hopi pottery is not monolithic. In the 1930s a handful of potters began making red ware, reminiscent of the archaic styles associated with Ancestral Puebloans of the Kayenta region of north-central Arizona, and a few continue today. One of the earliest and most renowned of these was Myrtle Young. Though she lived in Hano all her life, her pottery bore little resemblance to the intricate polychrome designs on burnished yellow clay that her home was famous for. She favored a deep red slip and minimalist geometric designs in black, if any at all.

Our museum has an exquisite collection of Hopi pottery and all of it can be viewed on our online database (http://pgmuseum.pastperfectonline.com/). Though none of our Hopi pottery is currently on display, we hope to be able to exhibit it soon.