At the end of the 19th century, shortly after our 500-year-old war had finally conquered the frontier and the land’s indigenous people, American culture became fascinated by all things Indian (Hutchinson, 2009). “Natives” were redefined an objects of curiosity and ethnographers rushed to study their cultures before their expected disappearance. Of particular interest were artifacts that could be preserved as tokens of these cultures after they had died. It was in this racist context that Nampeyo became the first Native American artist known by name in the United States.
In large part her recognition grew out of the work of early anthropologists on the Hopi Mesas and the interest of Anglo traders and tour guides in selling Native crafts to the general public. Especially important was the publicity generated by the Harvey Company, which featured her work at “Hopi House” on the rim of the Grand Canyon and other gift shops along their tour routes. Nampeyo’s fame has persisted even as society outside of the reservation has reevaluated its understanding of Native culture and art and she is still being talked about. Here are 120 years of comments:
As early as January 1893, Alexander Stephen, living at First Mesa, acknowledged “Numpe’yo” as a “distinguished Tewa potter” (1936:130).
Reporting on an archeological expedition to Arizona in 1895, Jesse Fewkes reported that:
“The most expert modern potter at East Mesa is Nampeo, a Tanoan woman is a through artist in her line of work. Finding a better market for ancient that for modern (Polacca) ware, she cleverly copies old decorations, and imiatates the Sikyatki ware almost perfectly. She knows where the Sikyatki potters obtained their clay, and uses it in her work. Almost any Hopi who has a bowl to sell will say that it is ancient, and care must always be exercised in accepting such claims (1898:660).”
Fewkes regularly used the research of Alexander Stephen without much attribution, so it is ironic that Fewkes seems to cast aspersions on Native honesty.
In August 1896, while at Hopi to observe the Flute Ceremony at Walpi, Walter Hough and Jesse Fewkes visited Nampeyo to be instructed on pottery-making. Hough wrote of this visit in a book published 19 years later. While appreciative of the historic culture of the Hopi people, notice that his observations also mention the racism of his culture:
“Everyone who visits Tusayan (Hopi) will bring away as a souvenir some of the work of Nampeyo, the potter who lives with her husband (at)…Hano…Nampeyo is a remarkable woman. No feeling of her racial inferiority arises even on the first meeting with this Indian woman, bare-foot, bonnetless, and clad in her quaint costume. For Nampeyo is an artist-potter…(1915:75-76).”
At about the time that Nampeyo made bowl 1993-04, Walter Hough returned to the Hopi mesas as part of The (Smithsonian) Museum –Gates Expedition of 1901. In his report, he summarizes the history of pottery making at Hopi and recognizes Nampeyo:
“It appears that comparatively recently the potter’s art died out among the Hopi of Middle and East Mesas and that by the law of village specialization of an art, Orabi (on Third Meas) retained the making of pottery until shortly after 1872, when Dr. J. W. Powell visited the pueblo. The later Orabi art shows marked Zuni influences. The Tewans (on First Mesa), however, practiced the art uninterruptedly, and it has come to be that finally, at the close of the (current) period, the pottery used by the Hopi is of Rio Grande (Tewa) extraction, even though it has been throughly debased, like many of the arts of the American Indian. Nampeyo, an intellignet Tewa woman, however, is endeavoring to revive the glories of former times (1903:347).”
Walter Hough wrote an extensive appreciation of Nampeyo in 1917 for the journal American Anthropologist. This article is difficult to find, so I reprint the full text below, with some paragraph breaks added. It is ironic that just as Hough was introducing Nampeyo to a wider audience, the artist was becoming blind. The article:
Walter Hough, A Revival of the Ancient Hopi Pottery Art, American Anthropologist (New Series), Volume 19, 1917, pp.322-323.
“When the expedition of Major J. W. Powell visited the Hopi in 1872, the East Mesa and Orabi Indians alone of the seven pueblos made pottery, and that of inferior quality. Scattered over the soil in the neighborhood of the pueblos, and especially on the sites of the ancient towns, were fragments of vessels of fine ware and excellent decoration which pointed to a golden age of pottery making. A few entire examples of the old ware were brought out by early exploration, but the beauty and interest of the ancient pottery became known through the exploration of Dr. J. Walter Fewkes in the ruins of Sikyatki and Awatovi, the former having a dim tradition and the latter terminating its carrier (?) abruptly about 1700. In the light of the ceramics coming from these (?) villages the decay of the Hopi potter’s art was seen to be almost complete. Apparently the perpetuation of Hopi pottery was due to the Tewa from the Rio Grande who settled in Tusayan about 1700 and founded the village of Hano on First Mesa. They became in fact during the last (?) century practically the only potters in Tusayan and their art which they had originally brought from the Rio Grande was slightly modified , the decoration being most affected.
It is to the credit of an Indian woman, a native of Hano named Nampeo, that the ancient pottery art of the Hopi has been revived. The mmanner of this happening is interesting. Nampeyo’s husband Lesu, a Hopi, worked for Dr. Fewkes on the excavations of Sikyatki, and Nampeo often visited the scene of his labors. She became very much interested in the beautiful ware which Dr. Fewkes was recovering from the debris of Sikyatki, and being of an inquiring mind sought the source of the fine clay which the pottery of that pueblo converted into the bluff and ivory vessels by their handicraft. Nampeo experimented with Sikyatki clays and found what she considered to be the ancient clay; she matched the pigments used in decoration, and finally copied the designs on paper with a lead pencil. In 1896 the writer saw her in Dr. Fewkes camp copying the designs on pottery from the middle mesa, and that year secured for the National Museum examples of her first productions. These specimens were full of promise. The ware is of good quality, unslipped like the ancient ware, and the decoration is a rather close copy of the designs secured from individual specimens of ancient work.
Gradually Nampeyo attained greater freedom in design, and for some years decorated her ware in a style which may be termed transitional. At present she has mastered the vocabulary and alphabet of the ancient designs and applies them with the skill of the potters of long ago. Nampeo is progressive and as long as she lives her taste and skill will grow. Fortunately her pottery was in demand from the outset, and during the score of years of its production, she has through it made a living and achieved distinction, having become the best known of the Hopi. It is gratifying to know that Nampeyo’s example and success have induced a number of Hopi women to take a share in her pottery revival, much to the economic benefit of those Indians. The Hopi are excellent designers, and as they have kept their art free from extranious influences an interesting development may be predicted. The products of Nampeyo’s school are worthy of wider notice than they secure from summer visitors to the Hopi. The pottery has attained the quality of form, surface, fire smudges (?), and decoration of the ancient ware which give it artistic standing.
An excellent bust of Nampeyo has been made by the sculptor Emry Kopta, who has pursued his art among the Hopi for several years. In forming his figures of the native clay, Mr. Kopta has had the advice of Nampeo. Likewise Nampeo has observed the making of plaster molds and slip casting by the sculptor. It is hardly probable that she will utilize these steps in advance. Her fame will rest on her contribution the the revival of an ancient American art, which revival is remarkable in that it is accomplished by the Indians themselves without outside influence.”
The most eloquent evaluation of Nampeyo’s work was written by Ruth Bunzel in 1929. By the time she interviewed Nampeyo (during the summers of 1924 and 1925) the “Old Lady” was blind and could no longer paint her designs. While she lived for almost 20 additional years and continued to form pots, her career as a designer and painter were over and could be assessed. Bunzel wrote how
“the creative spirit is only rarely (bestowed)…. However at infrequent intervals a person thus gifted does appear to bless humanity. One of the qualities of genius is the ability to experience mentally what has not yet been experienced sensually, and to embody this unique experience in tangible form. When such a person functions in the field of art, (she) may produce those sudden mutations in style that mark the history of the arts among all peoples…(Such a) revolution in style can be traced to a striking personality. Nampeyo, a potter of Hano, revived and adapted the ancient ware of Sikyatki. Undoubtedly the original stimulus came from the outside, but it was Nampeyo’s unerring discrimination and lively perception that vitalized what would otherwise have been so much dead wood. She did not copy Sikyatki patterns, her imagination recreated the Sikyatki sense of form (1972:87-88).”
Writing “An Appreciation of the Art of Nampeyo” in Plateau Magazine shortly after Nampeyo’s death in 1942, Mary-Russell and Harold Colton specify the nature of Nampeyo’s creative spirit:
“Her work was distinguished from that of Hopi potters by a sense of freedom and a fluid flowing quality of design, together with an appreciation of space as a background for her bold rhythmic forms…. There are many fine potters today….It is noticeable, however, that the majority of these potters do not consider unused space as a factor in design, but cover their forms completely with combinations of elements and motifs….with possible exception of her daughter Fanny, the use of space as a positive factor in design in not evident (in the daughters’) as in the mother’s work. For this reason the work of Nampeyo has a character all its own, which may be readily recognized by students of the Hopi potters art (1943: pp 44-45).
Robert Ashton echoes the sentiments of both Bunzel and the Coltons, when he describes Nampeyo’s “sense of freedom, design and appreciation of the shape and space of each vessel…. In comparing the pottery of Nampeyo to that done by her fellow potters, she was equaled technically; but as an artist she was unsurpassed (1976:31).”
Barton Wright traces the development of Nampeyo’s style:
“She began first to duplicate and then expand upon the Sikyatki examples…The genius of Nampeyo was to grasp the possibilities (Sikyatki) pottery offered and then to explore every aspect for her creative purpose. (Her duplication of Sikyatki ware) soon passed and she went on to express her own creativity. Her subtle changes in the configurations of Sikyatki design elements gave more fluidity to curvilinear lines….isolated (Sikyatki) motifs were abandoned, leaving an uncluttered background space as an integral part of the overall decoration. This use of openness, one of the most distinguishing aspects of Nampeyo’s pottery, creates a classical elegance… (1993:36-37).”
Barbara Kramer wrote the first scholarly, full-length biography of Nampeyo and concludes it by describing her as
“…a tiny woman, and exceptional potter, a compulsive artist, who is a giant in the history of Hopi ceramics (1996:144).”
In a book documenting an extraordinary collection of Nampeyo pottery, Ed Wade writes:
“I have frequently commented upon the inventiveness of Nampeyo, but one cannot overemphasize the astounding breadth of her creativity….No other historic Pueblo potter approached her versatility in experimenting with vessel shapes, surfaces, painted compositions, firing techniques, and…sculptural forms. She was a potter’s potter who reveled in her own aesthetic vision unconstrained by the vicissitudes of Anglo patron’s taste (Wade and Cooke, 2012:176).”