MAKING NATIVE AMERICAN POTTERY, Michael Simpson, Naturegraph Publishers, Happy Camp, CA; 800/390-5353. 1991, 79 pages, paperback, $7.95. Many color and black and white photos. 0-87961-191-X

Simpson, now a professor of English and Native American Studies at Eastern Washington State University, is of both Yakima and Cherokee ancestry. When he was about to marry, he went to North Carolina from Washington state, where he was born and had always lived to research the "eastern branch" of his family, the Cherokee people indigenous to North Carolina and Georgia, who had eluded the Trail of Tears death march and eventually established a small reservation in North Carolina. At a restaurant, he saw some unusual pottery he liked. Inquiries eventually led him to Doris Blue, the last living full-blooded Catawba tribal member (she died in 1985), who was also the last practitioner of an ancient method of pottery-making which involves open pit, rather than mound-kiln firing, and hence is "easy to do in a backyard." His wife, a potter, had said that was what she wanted to do when she graduated, "make pottery, fire it in our back yard, sell it, and maybe teach."

Simpson learned that Catawba, who eluded forced removal to Oklahoma, had joined with their former enemies, the hold-out Cherokees, hiding in the hills, in the struggle to remain on their homelands. "The Catawba and Cherokee pottery families intermarried," he says. "A cross-fertilization of methods took place, with the final result being that the Cherokee adopted the Catawba method of firing in an open pit, abandoning forever the traditional mound firing method, which has been nearly forgotten in modern times."

Doris, who saw her own knowledge unwanted by the younger generation, taught him all she knew about finding and working natural clays, and firing the resulting pots in the simplest, and what is probably the earliest, manner: the open pit wood fire, which is built up around pre- heated pots, and fires them as it openly burns. Simpson's book starts with some brief reminiscences of Doris's life, then becomes a chatty-low key manual for the beginning natural- clay potter, starting with how to find clays, how to process them (with many tips for avoiding every kind of mistake that Simpson himself probably made when beginning) -- even though he had two experienced guides: the Catawba elder and his wife, the modern potter.

His step by step discussion is illustrated with many black and white photos that show clay preparation, first including "how it looks -- wrong" and "how it looks -- right" and a determined literary attempt to convey information relevant to the "feel" -- the potter's experienced hands. He takes the reader through the construction, first of the very simplest type of pot (pinched), next, the slab pot, and finally the coiled pot. He makes it clear that it is not a good idea to bypass the simpler types and start on coil construction as a novice. There are illustrations and instructions for creating and painting part-dry pots with slip (a liquid form of clay that may have color additives), polishing part-dry pots with smooth rocks, and many other techniques which the modern potter -- using wheels for thrown pots, glazes, and other technical tools will never learn but from this kind of experience, related by someone who is able to write and photograph all parts of the processes.

Building the firing pit, what kinds of woods to use in what proportion, and tips for maximizing success, minimizing breakage are all here. Actually, failure can occur prior to firing. If clay preparation is not done correctly, or the pots are constructed incorrectly, they will crack upon simple drying. If stone polishing takes place at the wrong drying stage, or the friction of polishing is allowed to overheat and hence dry out the still damp clay, the pots will be rough- sanded, rather than smooth-polished. The stone polishing procedure is a method that smooths by compressing the clay particles, not by sanding it, hence contributing to its strength, rather than weakening it.

Six full pages of color plates, two photos per page, show finished, fired pots of a variety of colors, shapes, and decoration methods, as color shots of the firing going on, to give the best "visual communication" of what it will look like in its various heating stages.

This book is probably the best guide for novice potters who wish to try "backyard pottery" (or can build firing pits somewhere) which is the least technically-demanding form of the ancient craft. Guidance is provided for those who will purchase, rather than dig, clay.

This book is very highly recommended to anyone interested in any aspect of Native pottery. However, it should be mandatory reading for authors, publishers, and any teachers who are trying to use the flood of "trashcraft" books that purport to teach Native American culture in the edbiz minority market industry with some of the most unworkable, stupid, bound- to-fail pottery activities I've ever seen. (A recent one is the product of a whole Army of experts from the Brooklyn Museum.)

See reviews from Ceramics Monthly and Books of the Southwest magazines on Naturegraph's website.

--Paula Giese

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Last Updated: Thursday, October 31, 1996 - 6:10:30 AM