This double-chambered, casually formed, and heavy Hopi container has a simple polychromatic decoration and red rims. It is an unusual shape for a Hopi or Hopi-Tewa pot. Red lips on a Sikyatki Revival pot are also unusual and might indicate a production date toward the beginning of the twentieth century. Based on the comments of a New York dealer, the eBay listing claimed it was a “salt container,” and this may be correct.

Hopi salt containers are not common. One example is owned by the Arizona State museum (catalog #4129) and was part of the 1990 “Seven Centuries” exhibit of Hopi pottery. It’s caption reads “Ritual Container, A.D. 1830-1870 (Polacca Polychrome C). Rectangular vessels with one or two openings have been used in modern and historic times to hold salt, water, corn pollen, or feathers for use in religious ceremonies (Arizona State Museum, 1990:21).” A photograph of this pot in its showcase (with nine other pots) is shown here. Like the salt containers in the Keam collection (discussed below), the Arizona Museum pot has two chambers, each with a short neck. Pot 2009-15 is much more casually formed and lacks the pronounced necks. Note that immediately to the right of the rectangular ritual container in the photograph is a similar, but rounded, prehistoric container (catalog #GP11681).

Left foreground: On the left, Ritual container, Polacca Polychrome C, A.D. 1830, AZ State Museum #4129, On the right ritual container A.D. 1300-1400, AZ State Museum #GP11681.


A clear photograph of a ca 1885 rectangular Hopi-Tewa salt container with a single chamber is reproduced in Blairs (1999:fig 2.36a in their color portfolio following page 172). The container shows signs of use and seems to be Polacca ware with a rough white finish, casual design and a red lip. It is part of the collection of the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford, England.

Walter Hough’s 1918 review of the Hopi collection of the Smithsonian (1919:239) briefly mentions a “salt vessel” and shows a top-down view of a rectangular vessel with (apparently) a short neck and an almost rectangular opening. It seems like some sort of protrusion graces each corner of the vessel (Hough, 1919:plate 23, #2), but this is difficult to discern.

In their catalog of the Thomas Keam collection of pottery at the Peabody Museum, Wade and McChesney illustrate four “Polacca Style B” (1820-1860) rectangular vessels—three with short necks and one with the neck apparently filed off (1981: 141-142]. These are not identified as salt containers, but instead are listed under “eccentrics.” In a catalog for a traveling exhibition for some of the Keam pots (published a year earlier) Wade and McChesney publish larger, clearer photographs of two of these four square pots and here identify them as “salt canisters” (Wade and McChesney, 1980:38-39). These latter photographs are the clearest I have of other Hopi salt containers.

In about 1890, Alexander M. Stephen, Keam’s ethnographic partner, created an interpretive catalog of the pottery collection, which Wade and McChesney later described. In 1994, Alex Patterson published Stephen’s catalog under the name Hopi Pottery Symbols. Patterson reprints drawings of three of the four rectangular vessels illustrated in the Wade and McChesney catalog. Stephen identifies these four vessels as salt containers. Stephen commented about two of the containers (Patterson, 1994:70-71, 161 and 174): “The canisters were used for holding salt. Upon the former (vessel) the band around the neck represents the girdle, with feathers attached, worn by the leader of the party who went to the Colorado River to obtain salt (Paterson:71).”

Stephen interprets the decoration on these first two illustrated containers as representing clouds, rain, antelope hoof rattles, and the symbol of the Aloseka kachina, a squash bud (Patterson,1994:72). The third vessel Stephen describes as a salt canister has a fancy diamond design and is edged with a germination emblem (Patterson, 1994:113 and 151). Stephen does not discuss the remaining salt container in the Keam collection, but it has a bird decoration. In short, all four salt containers in the Keam collection are carefully constructed and have fairly elaborate, delicate, and meaningful decoration.

In contrast, 2009-15 is casually constructed and heavy for its size, perhaps simply formed by roughly joining two similar square pots. The decoration is simple and static. Each long side displays a double-pointed sawtooth design arranged in two pairs with their flat bases facing each other. The base of these sawtooth designs is formed by a half-circle in red. For three of the four pairs, a line occupies the space between the bases. One pair lacks this line; the bases are simply separated by a narrow space. The ends of the container display a design of flattened half circles facing each other, perhaps a simple variation of a design identified by Stephen as a cloud emblem (Patterson, 1994:43). Like old Polacca vessels and the salt container in the Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford, the lip is painted red.

Adobe Gallery, Santa Fe has a double-chambered Zuni vessel listed as a salt container. [Photograph and description are on file.]

Traditionally, each fall Hopi men hiked some 80 miles west from the mesas to a spot near the bottom of the Grand Canyon to fetch salt. “…some distance west from the mouth of the Little Colorado River, a deposit of salt lies…near the base of the canyon.  Close to this deposit the river forms a series of eddies which marks one of the entrances to the house of Masau (God of the underworld, death and life), and in these eddies the (Hopi), when they go there to gather salt, toss their breath feathers and meal offerings to Masau (Alexander Steven as quoted in Patterson, 1994: 28)”   As these deposits lie near the original Sipapu (place of emergence into the fourth world) and the “very brink of the home of the dead,” they lie in “dangerous” territory. [For a photograph of this Sipapu, see James (1974:7).] Thus, only men who have undergone the Wu wutcim initiation may hazard the trip. A salt party consists of three men—one is a novice, and two have gone before and know the elaborate rituals needed to make the trip safely. Upon their return to their village, the men’s “aunts” ritually wash them and they are renamed. This is a solemn business (Bradfield, 1995:38-39, 118).

Armin Geertz writes of this journey from a slightly different perspective:

“The rutual person can be a symbolic tool.  For example, male initiation is first completed  when the new initiate completes a pilgrimage to Sipaapuni, the primordial place of Emergence.  This highly dangerous journey to the bottom of one of the side canyons of the Grand Canyon involves a reenactment of the roles played by mythological figures –ancestors and gods alike.  Not only do the pilgrims reenact pararoles, they are also sent as representatives of the secret society, the village, and the Hopi people to suplicatethe rain-giving and life-giving powers (1986:47.”

As the novice member of such a group, Don Talayesva made the journey from Orabi (Third Mesa) and recounts his experience in detail in his autobiography Sun Chief (1942:232-247). Men from Walpi (First Mesa) were more likely to travel east to a salt lake near Zuni to gather this precious commodity (Yava, 1978:117), though Don Talayesva also reports such a trip. Since this eastward route does not go near the land of the dead, it was not as dangerous as the Grand Canyon route and fewer ritual precautions were necessary (Talayesva, 1942: 252-255).  In 1948 the Fred Harvey Co. commissioned Hopi artist Fred Kabotie to paint several murals for the Painted Desert Inn in the Petrified Forest, AZ. One is entitled “Salt Lake Mural” and depicts two young men “who walked 230 miles from their home (at Hopi) to the Zuni Mesas…It was both (a) physical and Coming-of-Age Journey.”  That mural is shown here:

I believe their Hopi home is shown in the center with maidens grinding corn and women cooking and proceeds in  a counterclockwise direction to the salt lake at the top, where the men are shown gathering salt.  They then return home.  Along the journey they are shown facing a variety of challenges.

When Mexican and Anglo traders made commercial salt plentiful and cheap, these salt gathering expeditions tended to die out (about 1930), though Talayesva warns that salt gathered without the proper ritual offerings would result in a lack of rain and bad luck (1942:253).

Writing 35 years after Talayesva, Fred Kabotie observed that:

Salt has always been very important to the Hopi…For everyday use at home, commercial salt from the store is all right, but for certain ceremonial needs our natural salt must come from the Grand Canyon, or from the Zuni salt lake. And it must be gone after on foot, fulfilling each ceremonial obligation at shrines along the way (1977:80).

After a lapse of about 40 years, “Traditionalists” from Second and Third mesa resumed the salt gathering trips to the Grand Canyon. This revival was motivated, in part, by a wish to reaffirm Hopi claims to shrines in the Canyon (Clemmer 1995:197). Salt gathering expeditions continue to carry great religious significance.  After the salt is gathered it is stored in fabric. After the expedition returns to their village, containers such as 2009-15 are used as repositories for the salt.

Rare photographs of this salt-gathering journey were published in the National Geographic Magazine (Page 1982:608-609; see also Page and Page 1994:224ff.)

In 1990, the Hopi Tribal Council passed a resolution to prevent the publication by the University of Nebraska Press of Ekkehart Malotki’s book The Hopi Salt Trail: A Ritual Pilgrimage to the Grand Canyon.  The book would have revealed the locations of Salt Trail shrines. In response to the Council’s resolution, the University cancelled publication of the book.

Purchase History:
Purchased on 7/19/09 on eBay from Steven Leeks of Indianapolis. He writes, “I found the piece at a local Thrift store here in Indianapolis. I had Cowen’s look at it last week, and the two galleries in New York (were) Marcy Burns Gallery and the John Molly Gallery. They each shared that they thought the piece to be a spice container/salt, and valued the pot at $[x]. Cowan’s did not look so favorably on the piece though. Nevertheless, I thought the piece to be quite charming…. I paid a few dollars for the piece. But I do this professionally. I help in the operations of an antique co-op in downtown Indianapolis, and regard this as part of my education.”

What a great place to find a Hopi pot: an “Indian a polis.”