Children of Clay: A Family of Pueblo Potters

Book Review - Guided Web Trip

By Paula Giese
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Children of Clay, by Rina Swentzell, photos by Bill Stern; Lerner Publications, c. 1992, $19.95, 0-8225-2654-9; also available in paperback, $6.95, 0-8225-2654-X. (Discounts for school purchases: Lerner Group, Minneapolis, 800/328-4929; ask for their catalog.)

Lerner pegs this book for grades 3-6 social studies -- but I that's a feature of the clear (but not childish) writing style of its author. Its content and beautiful pictures can and should be enjoyed by any age, it doesn't talk down to older, even h.s. readers. Its availability in low-cost paperback means it can be purchased in quantity (there are further discounts) for all-student use in classes. It is suitable for almost any parent to give to almost any child. Most young people have had some pleasant early experience "messing around" with clay, and will have intense interest in this talented family whose fun results in great beauty, usefulness, and a spiritual aspect too.

Author Rina Swentzell is herself a Santa Clara Tewa-Pueblo Indian. An architect and educator, she's the older sister of well-known modern sculptor/poet Nora Naranjo-Morse, from the home pueblo, Santa Clara. By following this link to Nora, you can see some of Nora's ceramics and follow a link to her book of poetry, illustrated by her ceramics, for adults and older students.

Santa Clara Pueblo -- home of the New Mexico Native American family this book is about -- is a place where almost everyone seems to be a "child of clay". For more than 2,000 years, native people of the southwest have been making pottery from the abundant clays of the region. See a map of the New Mexico Rio Grande Pueblos, and links to info about many of them.

Ancestors of the Tano and Tewa peoples who live at, and are tribal members of, the Santa Clara Pueblo in northern New Mexico (and most other pueblos of the Rio Grande valley and San Juan basin of northern New Mexico) were the ancient Anasazi peoples. Their impressive ancient towns, with enormous quantities of broken or abandoned pottery, are found in hundreds of buildings -- 9 full-sized towns, once inhabited by 500,000 people -- at Chaco Canyon,, which is now a National park, and many smaller sites, as well as Canyon de Chelly at Four corners. Anasazi sites were deserted sometime around 1300 A.D., probably because of a long drought that began around 1100, making it impossible to live in this area by drylands farming. The people who moved away settled down in newly-built pueblos mostly along the northerly Rio Grande, and are thought also to be ancestors of the Hopi tribal people, who live on and around 3 mesas in central Arizona.

They brought with them the pottery skills and arts which left behind all sorts of pieces in their former homes. But perhaps because of the survival crisis, the people lost around this time their former art of making certain types of glazed pottery. These ancient arts, methods, techniques, and sources of material have been and are being rediscovered by talented potters of the desert river valley -- the most famous of whom is San Ildefonso Pueblo's Maria Martinez (usually known just by her first name) who rediscovered in the early 1900's the ancient art of blackware, created by airless charcoal firing, the pots smothered. Pots are later polished to a high gloss with a rock. Read about how pueblo people make pots, step by step.

Today, author Rina Swenzell's daughter Roxanne Swentzell, is perhaps the most famous of the many fine clay artists at Santa Clara. You can see a larger version of her 1988 ceramic sculpture, Emergence of the Koshares, (large version of the photo at left, here) that the Heard Museum, which bought the group in 1990, features and sends on travelling shows. Roxanne is a powerful sculptor of the earth mother's flesh. Click here to for a short essay about her with links to more examples of her work and an essay about her art. The powerful sculpture is unusual in that the frontmost figure is not complete -- it stands flat on a part of the clown's chest just below his shoulders. He is pulling himself out of the shipapuni a mythical hole connecting to lower, earlier worlds, from which everyone and everything emerged to our orld, the last so far. This origins story beautifully represents in powerful emotional, symbolic, religious form the cosmic evolution of our world, which science treats from a very different perspective.

Of course Roxanne is one of the "children of clay" featured in her sister's book about their talented family.

Nora Naranjo-Morse is another Santa Clara Child of the Clay. She's Rina Swentzell's youngest sister and Roxanne Swentzell's aunt. She does a different kind of clay sculpture, some of it highly satirical of non-Indian tourists who visit the native pueblo. Clicking on Nora's name brings up a short essay about her, with links to an introductory chapter to Nora's book of clay-sculpture-illustrated poems, Mud Women, Poems from the Clay. Nora has written a book for 5-8 year-olds, A First Clay Gathering, which you can order on-line from Shen's Books, which specializes in multicultural children's books on-line. Nora's book is fiction, it tells the story of a very young pueblo Indian girl who gathers special clay for her grandma's potting.

Nora's and Rina's brother -- Roxanne's uncle-- is Santa Clara sculptor Michael Naranjo, who was blinded in Vietnam, but returned home to Santa Clara where he became a bronze sculptor, whose large works are shown in Albuquerque museums. Many other members of the Naranjo family are also artists -- potters or painters, usually.

Author Rina is herself a child of clay, though her profession is not directly working with it. She has an MA in architecture and a PhD in American Studies. She is a consultant for architectural firms and institutions such as museums (she was an advisor for the new New York Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian) and schools. She also writes and lecures on the philosophical basis of the Pueblo world: its educational, artistic, and architctural expressions. One of her essays is included in All Roads Are Good, a book of essays by Indian people who were asked to choose meaningful objects from the New Smithsonian-Heye collection, and write an essay centered on them about te meanings of art as seen through their own cultural perspectives.

Being children of clay means much more than just being a potter. It is to be and know that you are a child of the earth. Clay is the flesh of the Earth Mother. Mothers, actual Pueblo women, are very close to that flesh, Rina feels.

"Pottery is an especially feminine activity. There is a conspicuous element of play involved in making pots, and it really comes through when you watch or are part of the whole process. My mother, my aunt, my sisters -- everybody's sitting around the table making a pot. Children come in, grab a piece of clay and start to play with it. Meanwhile, everyone's talking and laughing, saying "Why'd you do that?" and the adults are playing with the clay as much as the kids are. It's not this great big serious thing: ART. People are cooking their beans while taking care of their kids and talking to neighbors.

"And out of that activity comes something from a deeper place in your being. But that's changing now because money has gotten involved and pots are becoming more precious -- if a pot breaks, you've just lost $600. "

Rina feels that native potters must not lose the vital connection to the earth that makes them "children of clay" when they have finally begun to benefit economically from their craft. It is important to keep family traditions alive, and to retain the family approach and spiritual connections she describes for clay-work itself.

Teachers seeking curriculum help to teach about Native art and artists will find a welcome on-line resource prepared by the Heard Museum: The Native American Fine Art Movement Resource Guide: Book (Heard Museum) by Margaret Archuleta and others. The entire book, its footnotes, and illustrations, are on-line in a clear, easy-to-follow design by Karen Strom. (A hardcopy may also be ordered by mail.) For a limited time, the Heard Museum also offers free to teachers (one per school) who write on school letterhead the complete slide set which illustrates the on-line and hardcopy booklet. The booklet is mostly oriented to teaching about Native painters over several periods, but Roxanne Swentzell is also included.) You can also visit the on-line Heard Museum, see some exhibitions of other kinds of Native art, and read about some of their programs and shows, too.

Rina's Children of Clay book is part of Lerner's "We're Still Here: Native Americans Today" series intended as multicultural social studies for grades 3-6. Beautifully illustrated (with photos mostly), written with clarity and simplicity (but not childish, and often by Native writrs), so that almost any age can enjoy them. Indeed, they seem particularly good for older students who have reading problems and need reading books that are appealing and motivating. Lerner has a long local history of seeking out native writers, photographers, and the cooperation of tribal people in the preparation of books like these for young people. Many of their newer Native books feature color photographs of experienced local Native photographer Dale Kakkak, whose black and whites have long been an admired feature of the Minneapolis Indian Center's Circle newspaper.

Rina's book was selected for the Human Family Booklist by the National Conference of Christians and Jews. In 1992-93, when it first appeared, it received outstanding reviews from Kirkus Reviews, from Booklist of the American Library Association, School Library Journal and Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books of the University of Chicago.

Lerner publishes dozens of other books for grades K - 12, including interesting and beautiful ones for other minorities, and well-done elementary level science reading (i.e. not text or hands-on) books. They're not as well known as the huge school-industry publishing giants. Many teachers and most parents would rarely see their books. So I'm happy to bring them to your attention. Give them a call -- 800/328-4929 -- and ask for their catalog, especially if you're a teacher, librarian or school multicultural specialist. There's info there about school discounts, as well as a listing of booksellers and distributors world-wide which carry some Lerner books. Individual orders may be placed with this publisher, but are not eligible for school discounts, and require pre-payment (by check or money order) in advance, by mail.

More native potters -- a whole Mexican village, a big collection of southwestern collected before World War II pots arranged for research, potters from different pueblos, as well as Roxanne and Nora. Parts of that page have already been linked-to above, here.

Books by Rina Swentzell available from

Books by Nora Naranjo-Morse available from

Books about Mata Ortiz pottery available from

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CREDITS: The 2-fish logo of the ArtPages is by the late Martin Panamick, Wikewemenikong Reserve Odawa, as explaineed on the ArtPages Main Menu credits. The photo of the book cover I scanned from Lerner's 1995 catalog; it was taken by Bill Steen, the book's photo-illustrator. Lying in front of it is part of another book's cover, Kinaaldá: A Navajo Girl Grows Up,, 1993, which was an IRA Teachers' Choice.

Many of the pages linked-to are from Karen Strom's experimental book, Voyage to Another Universe which she created on the Hanksville server in Boston. Its structure is a 2-week tour -- hiking, visiting with artists and gallery operators and reading poetry -- around the southwest in Indian country. Browsing this book is highly recommended, but school users with limited InterNet time are cautioned that almost every page contains many very large (for the web) picture files, which means that many pages take a very ong time to load. Strom's book inspired my attempt here at a highly-hyperlinked writing.

Webmistress --Paula Giese. Explanatory text and graphics copyright 1995.

Last Updated: 5/27/97