Women from other tribes marrying Hopi men and living at Hopi are often taught pottery-making by their mother-in-laws. This was probably true of a Zuni woman who married a Hopi man at the end of the 19th century (2011-28) and was certainly true of Ceclia Lessou (1994-05 and 2003-02) who was Pima Indian who married Nampeyo’s son Wesley. Similarly Gloria Kahe (1991-01 and 1991-02) is Dine (Navajo), married Marcella Kahe’s son Samuel, and was taught pottery making by her mother-in-law.
Ida Sahmie, the maker of tile 2019-15, is also Dine, married Hopi/Tewa Andrew Sahmie, and was taught pottery making by Andrew’s mother Priscilla Namingha.
Tile 2019-15 is almost perfectly square and only slightly warped from drying in the sun. Note that it is exceptionally thin. When taped with a finger it emits a dull “thunk,” indicating an outdoor firing at low temperature.
Charles King, from whom I bought this tile, provided a detailed description of its iconography:
“This is a very traditionally inspired tile by Ida Sahmie. It is “The Four Sacred Plants with Four Sacred Frogs”, which is a design often seen in sandpaintings and Navajo weavings. Here, Ida has painted it on a stone polished tile using natural clay slips and bee-weed (a plant) for the black. The four sacred plants are corn, beans, squash, and tobacco. There are both painted and matte areas along with incised designs. The four sacred frogs are painted with four different colors of clay and separate the four plants. The tile… is signed on the back, ‘Ida Sahmie’… Ida continues to make beautifully formed pottery with wonderfully complex designs. She has won numerous awards for her pottery at events such as Santa Fe Indian Market. She is the only Navajo potter creating this unique style of ethnographic pottery….Below the plants [in the central brown circle] are white roots, the significance being that these plants still have their roots in the lower world”
Each of the four corners of the tile is painted with a three-stepped triangle. I do not know if this design has meaning in Navajo culture. Similar stepped forms represent cumulus rain clouds to the Hopi.
While I understand little of the complex belief system of the Navajo, the basic intent of the imagery on tile 2019-15 seems clear. Water, of course, is the critical element desired by the Dine, as desert people. Thus water symbols are often used on ritual objects. Al Anthony, Jr., owner of Adobe Gallery in Santa Fe, has written that:
“As tadpoles frequent the pools (of rainwater) of springtime, he has been adopted as the symbol of spring rains; the dragonfly hovers over pools in summer, hence typifies the rains of summer; and the frog maturing in them later, symbolizes the rains of the later seasons (2008:23).”
In Navajo ritual color has meaning and direction. Traditionally black is associated with north, white with east, blue with south and yellow with east. On tile 2019-15 Ida has not followed this convention, with the black and white frogs directly opposite each other and brown and rust-red frogs used in place of the traditional colors yellow and blue.
With water, plants can grow and Ida presents us with the four sacred plants basic to maintaining both spiritual and physical life. Each is associated with a direction marking the boundaries of the Navajo Nation: corn (north), beans(east), squash (south) and tobacco (west). Ida presents her plants in this order, a pattern most easily seen if the tile is oriented with the corn plant defined as pointing north. As depicted by Ida, these sacred plants seem mature, hence their association with frogs seems appropriate.
Chuck and Jan Rosenak assembled an extensive collection of Navajo folk art, which they presented in their book The People Speak (1994). They describe how Ida learned to make pottery: Shortly before Ida married Priscilla Namingha’s son Andrew, the couple moved into a trailer just south of Polacca Village, First Mesa, Az, near Andrew’s family, The book quotes Ida:
“in 1984 I remember watching my future mother-in-law (Priscilla Namingha) make pottery and I needed something to do with my hands, so that year I began making pottery. My sisters-in-law (Hopi potters Rachel and Jean Sahmie) did not think it right for me to use Hopi designs, so I decorate with sacred pictures from my Navajo heritage (1994:144).”
Thus the technique of manufacture of tile 2019-15 is Hopi, but the culture it expresses is entirely Navajo. Ida’s son, Chase Sahmie, has begun making pottery in the style of his mother. Most of Ida’s pots are figurative and Chase’s “Mother Earth and Father Sky” jar in this collection is within this tradition (2018-11). Historically a migratory tribe, the Navajo do not have a long tradition of painted pottery, a history discussed in some detail in the catalog entry for a jar by Navajo potter Faye Tso (2019-07).