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Modern Cherokee pottery from the Qualla Arts & Crafts Mutual

Early European potters in North Carolina

White settlers in North Carolina are thought to have begun pottery making around 1755 and fell into two main categories: German Moravians and English immigrants. Both groups settled in the Piedmont region of the state and brought the respective craft traditions of their homelands with them. For the English immigrants, that was from the famed Staffordshire district in England known for their fine china and porcelain. For the German immigrants, they were from various German-speaking areas but excelled in earthenware, press-molded stove tiles, toys, and salt-glazed stoneware.

To learn the art of pottery, European pottery makers mimicked the Old-World guild system in which a master would train an apprentice in the arts. These styles of pottery remained largely unchanged for many decades due to the nature of this training. Potters from this heritage tradition felt they already knew all that was necessary about how to find and prepare clay, turn and glaze wares, and build and burn kilns, and saw no reason to change those traditions.

Some still learned from watching, were self-taught, or had professional training through formal academic conduits. These artisans and the next generation of traditional potters innovated and adapted the training they received in more isolated hollows of the hills and created the unique style of pottery that the Tar Heel State became known for.

Location for pottery manufacturing

The very fact that clay is heavy and difficult to transport economically is precisely how the North Carolina potters became successful. White, or kaolin, clay is present in North Carolina and is naturally found in Transylvania County in the Brevard downtown area and around the site of the Ecusta plant. The high-quality clay is prized because it is a naturally occurring layer below clay and topsoil and hasn’t been carried by glaciers, so it’s highly pure and neutral in color.

 In 1767, Josiah Wedgwood of England sent a representative to America to find sources of kaolin clay for his signature pottery. He discovered a cache of kaolin clay in Macon County, NC and found it to be superior to what was available in England. Despite Wedgwood’s best efforts, however, it was too expensive to ship for production in Europe. The heaviness of the wet clay made it a local industry, unique to the people who inhabited the area near where the clay was harvested. Those locations eventually became pottery and ceramics centers in the state.

The Craft Revival of the 1930s

Pottery up to this time was important for day-to-day life, with the most common pieces being functional items such as jugs, churns, crocks, and dishes. The practical use of pottery dwindled in the 1920s, followed by the rise in popularity of art pottery. This Craft Revival was based around renewed interest in folk arts, or those with a specific regional identity and long-standing informal tradition.

In western NC there were noted pottery centers in Seagrove south of Greensboro, “Jugtown” between Lincoln and Catawba counties, and in the Arden area of Buncombe County. The three potters remembered most from the mountains are Oscar Louis Batchelder, Ernest A. Hilton, and Walter B. Stephen. Batchelder’s tiles were very popular worldwide during the Arts & Crafts movement.

Amanda Swimmer, traditional potter and “Beloved Woman” 2018

Revival of Cherokee pottery traditions

The art works of the Cherokee people fell neatly into this new folk-art trend. Often those pieces were marketed as a type of “lost art” of a “vanished people.” That narrative doesn’t factor in the forced removal of the Cherokee people and forced attendance at boarding schools, nor the fact that the Cherokee people are alive and well, though smaller in numbers than in the past.

During the forced removal known as the Trail of Tears, Cherokee were taken out of their homes at gunpoint with little more than the clothing on their backs, only to have their homes, livelihoods, food stores and kitchen crockery destroyed. They were forcibly marched to Oklahoma and lost their culture and its products in the process. Though a small group of Cherokee were able to hide in the mountains and eventually became the Eastern Band of Cherokee, their traditions were nonetheless as fractured as pottery shards. What remained of these artistic traditions was preserved through the resilience and diligence of a few dedicated souls who wished to prevent the loss of these culturally significant art forms.

In later years, archaeology unearthed pottery with Cherokee patterns. Cherokee makers’ abilities expanded with the discovery of these artifacts from the ancient past. Many potters developed new ideas from seeing ancient pottery remnants and tried to recapture their ancestral traditions by modeling their works after these source works. Potters such as Amanda Swimmer (1921-2018) went further and identified specific names and uses for the myriad pottery types that were utilized by their forebears. Her work led her to be recognized with the highest honor among the Cherokee, the title of “Beloved Woman,” for her role as an elder devoted to preserving heritage traditions.

Tourism’s effect on Cherokee pottery

The use of pottery changed its shape and style over time. The Cherokee’s functional pottery had a different look than that later created for tourism, for example. What was once created for function now became prized for its decorative character. In response to the market, pottery creation shifted to unique, fanciful, and more decorated pieces.

Tourism created an artisan class of people and provided economic opportunities. The impact of tourism on crafts was not always positive, unfortunately. Traditional crafts and styles often disappeared as modern preferences drove the demand. Non-authentic crafts that were part of cowboy movie perceptions of native peoples became a common trinket sold to tourists; the feathered headdresses and beadwork of the Plains Indians were what tourists thought that all native people made, thus crowded out authentic crafts in favor of souvenirs that confirmed incorrect assumptions about Cherokee culture and arts.

Wedding vase with two spouts stamped with “Friendship” pattern by Cora Wahnetah

Protecting traditional arts

The erosion of these traditional arts can be seen in the boarding schools that many Cherokee children were forced to attend. Children were separated from their families to be assimilated into western culture at these schools. Even with the Craft Revival which added pottery and other traditional craft classes to the boarding school classrooms, those craft programs were based on European traditions, such as pottery wheels and high-temperature firing. These techniques superseded the traditional Cherokee arts and often replaced them.

Factors such as these demonstrated the need to protect and preserve the tradition of Cherokee arts. A craft cooperative was started in 1946 with a storefront at the entrance of the Great Smoky Mountain National Park. With some adjustments, 1954 marks the official founding of the Qualla Arts and Crafts Mutual, which is a coalition of artisans who banded together to sell their work in a common storefront which were tagged for authenticity.

That authenticity tag was a major shift in thinking for the Cherokee artisans, as it showed a communal commitment to tradition, independent of the money to be made with cheaper, non-authentic items. The quality and design of Cherokee arts improved, and as a co-op, all of the artisans received better compensation for their work. The Cherokee arts remain strong as a living tradition of the first residents and potters of North Carolina.

Photographs and information for this column are provided by the Rowell Bosse North Carolina Room, Transylvania County Library. This article was written by Local History Librarian Laura Sperry. Sources available upon request. For more information, comments, or suggestions, contact NC Room staff at [email protected] or 828-884-1820. 

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