Articles & Reports

Jo Dahn, Bath Spa University College



In this essay I investigate the representation of pueblo pottery on the Internet and discuss how pueblo pottery web sites can act as vehicles for particular constructions of Native American culture. Drawing on a visit to New Mexico in August 2001, I consider the relationship between the 'real' pottery, its social and cultural context and its 'virtual' identity.

Keywords: ethnicity, authenticity, real, virtual, hyperspace, cyborg, discourse, haptic


Netrunner. Laney, who liked to think of himself as a researcher, suppressed a sigh.1


In August 2000 I visited Acoma Pueblo in Arizona. Sky City, as it is also called, is 'the oldest continuously inhabited city in the United States'.2 Turning off Route 66, I exchanged sweeping interstate highway for several miles of winding, single track road that led to a car park, beside an ultra modern pavilion, at the foot of a dramatic mesa. Excursions to Sky City are carefully controlled. After purchasing a ticket for the tour and a sticker for my camera (you have to pay extra if you want to take photographs, and you must not photograph the graveyard) I boarded the minibus that carries visitors up to the mesa plateau. As I strolled about the pueblo, a Native American guide described its history. Generations of his family have lived there for centuries, in adobe buildings without running water or electricity. Listening to him, the modern world began to fade away. I rounded a corner, and there, against a spectacular landscape, was a man selling ceramics: beautiful specimens of traditional pueblo pottery, hand made and intricately patterned. They seemed utterly right - the perfect embodiment of my Sky City 'experience'. Then I noticed a sign displaying a web site address and the legend: 'we ship anywhere.' The sudden contrast between 'lo-tech' and 'hi-tech' was shocking. How had two such antagonistic states come to co-exist in this way? Back in Britain, the question continued to tease me; I decided to investigate the representation of pueblo pottery on the Internet, and the present essay is a stage in my investigation. At the same time, this is an exercise in using the Internet as a research environment and all the web site addresses given in the text will be live links.


Before this, my 'take' on pueblo pottery revolved largely around issues of gender and ethnicity. Though also practised by men, ceramics is traditionally a female affair in Native American society.3 The famous names historically associated with pueblo pottery are those of women. An authentic pueblo pot is made using techniques learnt from mothers, aunts, and grandmothers. It is coiled from local clay, decorated with naturally occurring slips, burnished, and pit or bonfired. Makers speak of a spiritual practice wherein the clay itself is a hallowed substance and its proper handling is linked to ancient ritual.

Whenever you go and get the clay, you take your corn meal. You can't go to Mother Clay without the corn meal, and ask her permission to come and touch her. Talk to Mother Clay.4

Expressions of ethnicity pervade the process, and are re-enforced in the look of the finished article, with symbolic design motifs such as the serpent and the feather. It is no co-incidence that pueblo pottery was 'discovered' at the height of the modernist movement in design. It suited modernist notions of a natural, 'primitive', unspoiled creativity, while its abstract, geometric qualities suited the clean lines of modernist interiors.

All in all, a pueblo pot is an object poised at the intersection of numerous discourses, and capable of sustaining a complex narrative web. It is also an inhabitant of the haptic realm. The difference between a 'real' pueblo pot and its slip-cast second cousin is most apparent to the sense of touch, and vendors encourage potential buyers (especially those who balk at the high prices associated with authentic pueblo pottery) to feel the goods. But how (if at all) is the sense of touch conveyed via electronic media? And given that the cultural context of pueblo pottery bestows value and is an important aspect of its interpretation, how is it re-presented for consumption on the world wide web?

Pueblo pottery web sites

Clearly the first step in arriving at any answers had to involve 'surfing'. There are thousands of web sites that respond to the search phrase 'pueblo pottery' (21,400 using on 31/8/01) and although many hours were spent online I should emphasize that this was by no means an exhaustive search. I was 'googling' - following my inclinations and roaming the web in the intuitive manner of most surfers. While it is simply not possible to analyse everything I found, I want next to identify the general characteristics of pueblo pottery web sites. Broadly speaking, they fall into three main categories:

  • Those belonging to private galleries (where gallery translates rather loosely, as we shall see).
  • Those belonging to institutions (museums, colleges etc.).
  • Those belonging to makers or makers' co-operatives.

Sites maintained by makers tend to be more basic - sparer - than the other two categories, and it seems likely that by far the greatest number of Internet pages devoted to individual pueblo potters are incorporated into gallery web sites. There are some - like storytellers/nora, a curriculum vitae and bibliography of potter/poet Nora Naranjo-Morse - that stress their independence from the galleries, but in my experience they are the exception.

This is an "official" site in that this page was constructed with the assistance and active collaboration of the poet, Nora Naranjo Morse.5

On the evidence of my searches, private galleries (mostly, but not all, located in New Mexico) account for far more pueblo pottery web sites than either of the other two categories. They supply the majority of my examples, although I draw on all three types. A typical gallery site opens with a home page that generally (but not always) gives a clear indication of its terrestrial origins. Thus on its home page the Morning Star Gallery of Santa Fe, New Mexico,, declares itself 'THE WORLD'S PREMIER GALLERY FOR ANTIQUE AMERICAN INDIAN ART,' and gives a street address at the bottom of the page. A number of options are offered next. Clicking on 'browse our current collection' opens onto a list of artefactual categories: pottery, baskets, bags, textiles, parfleche, moccasins, clothing, jewellery, weapons, musical instruments, dolls and 'other items'. Choose 'pottery', and you are presented with a line of pots; click on one of these and you can view your selection in more detail. The high resolution on-screen image appears in full colour, illuminated in sharp focus. This is characteristic of all pueblo pottery web sites. Sizes are given, and they are crucial in order to accurately conceive of the object on display. The glossy virtual piece that fills your screen may actually be less than three inches tall. At there are prices (discretely signalled without the $ sign) but there is no 'shopping basket' facility.6 Nor does the site give biographical information on potters. However, many sites - especially those displaying contemporary work - do give such information. And while many galleries do not sell direct from their web site, there are many others that do. opens with a lengthy scroll-down home page. Although this web site invites the viewer to 'come and visit our other stores', there is no terrestrial address, only a telephone number. Subsequent enquiries have led me to conclude that sites like this belong to individual dealers. There is no 'brick and mortar' off-line gallery in the conventional sense. Prices are given (with $ signs), but as at there is no 'shopping basket' and would-be buyers are requested to e-mail or telephone. Again, pueblo pottery is one of a number of different types of artefact on show, but this time there is some eulogising biographical information mixed in with description, and the pots are sometimes placed in a wider context. Their authenticity is stressed:

Sometimes today Indian potters use commercial, ceramic molds (also called cast or slip-cast or greenware)… Sedonawolf does NOT sell it. The pottery you see here is from established Pueblo potters and is entirely made in the traditional (hand-coiled) way.7
Elsewhere on the site there are hints of the debate between tradition and change that haunts (albeit quietly) the Native American art/craft/design worlds. A quote from Southwestern Pottery Anasazi to Zuni, for example, suggests that if the 'great potters' of the past were presented with work by contemporary makers they 'would have trouble believing what you brought. The fame of these great potters may last through the ages and we hope it does, but none of them could have made most of these pots.'8 Like many of the gallery sites I visited, seeks to educate potential customers, and energetically promotes the joys of collecting. One becomes attuned to the 'voice' of web sites like this, and inured to their somewhat florid language. belongs to the R.B. Ravens Gallery in Ranchos de Taos. Its tone is typical of many.

R.B. Ravens Gallery holds the Sacred Trust as caretakers of the art of our ancestors.

We specialize in what we know and love: Navajo Rugs and Blankets; Pueblo Pottery; American Indian Paintings; Paintings by the Taos founders; Early Art forms and Books in and out of print. All of the finest quality, each with a place in history. The staff at R.B. Ravens consider it time well spent to help understand the significance, the beauty and value of our historic treasures. While these works are rare, we search out and find the finest quality for our clients. We invite you to tour our online Gallery and to contact us with any questions. The new Feature Page offers a unique item from our galleries' collection. Take a look!


Pottery of the Southwest.

There are no finer examples of utility and beauty than the clay Indian vessels of the Southwest.

While the finest examples of the potter's art are increasingly difficult to obtain, our long and trusted relationships with both the Pueblos and world-class collectors allow us to exhibit pottery representing many styles and periods. From the Pottery of the Mimbres (made before the arrival of the Conquistadors) to the Acoma, the Hopi, the Santo Domingo's, the Zia, the Zuni and other Pueblo pottery from before the 1930s. If there is something of special interest to you contact us, let us help you.9

Like the other sites, displays a rich array of pottery alongside a variety of Native American artefacts. Here though, all the objects shown can be bought via the web site; indeed, when I visited it (2/9/01) most of the pots on the first pottery page were already sold.10

Galleries and dealers are careful to promote their sensitivity to the historical and spiritual significance of Native American artefacts. (As James Clifford has remarked, tribal artefacts 'cannot move directly into .... the art market, without trailing clouds of authentic (traditional) culture.'11) Several dealers emphasise their close contact with makers, around whom they construct a cult of personality. In so doing, they elevate their own status as 'collectors'.12 This is particularly clear at a web site produced by dealer Jill Giller of Denver, Colorado. The 'voice' is lively, individual, and extremely enthusiastic; the information given alongside many pots suggests intimate friendship with individual makers. Thus of Dolly Naranjo, from Santa Clara pueblo, we are told:

Over the years, I have found Dolly to be one of the most gracious and open artists. She is constantly willing to "teach me" about her techniques, and her design elements. It is such a pleasure to be involved [with] her family ­ as they continue to change and evolve as people, and as artists. goes even further. On the home page there is a photograph of the gallery owner, Janet Smith. Click on 'about us' and discover the story of her arrival in 'the southwestern region of the United States', her work as 'a partner of a Native American art gallery', and her eventual setting up of the Hozhoni Gallery in 'downtown Naperville' Illinois. Her close affinity with Native American culture is underlined throughout.

The word stems from Hozho, which means, "harmony." Hózhóni speaks of all the things which makes the gallery successful because of it's [sic] ability to recreate the same feeling which the southwest inspires in it's [sic] artists, in it's [sic] culture, and in it's [sic] people. The beauty of the artwork in the gallery stems from the value of harmony which is foundational in southwestern Native American culture.

Janet's unwavering commitment to the Native American community has given her the opportunity to develop relationships that in many cases span her 16 year career. These relationships allow Janet to personally select each work of art...

'Janet's unwavering commitment' seems real enough. There are links from her web site (the button is marked 'Friends') to sites with an overtly socio-political agenda. One of them - - opens onto 'Red Feather Development Group ... a national nonprofit housing and community development organization. We work with American Indian nations to find lasting solutions for the acute lack of proper housing and desperate poverty that continue to plague many of these communities.' Another - - opens onto the Tribal Wisdom Foundation, 'An all volunteer, non-profit organization committed to the understanding and support of Native American Culture.'

What issues have Native Americans faced? What issues are they facing now? To fully understand the current state of Native Americans, one must understand the past 500 years of Dominant Society's treatment and its effect. The following summarizes what occurred since Columbus "discovered" America, a continent already inhabited by 10 to 15 million people.

There follows a packed three page homily detailing outrages against the Native American peoples, under headings such as 'Religious Persecution' and 'Violation of Treaty Rights.'

One click takes you from potter Dusty Naranjo (for that was the initial search term I used in this instance) to, another click to Pueblo pottery web sites float in an extraordinarily busy universe where the relation between social and self-interest is constantly shifting. Discourses of race, ethnicity, gender, art, craft, design, and many, many more, jostle for attention. Be up to date on all the issues with the on-line newspaper www.Indianz.Com, 'a product of Noble Savage Media, LLC and Ho-Chunk, Inc.', or with, a web-based radio service. Listen for pleasure to 'Tribal Fires', a CD available from Read 'The Soul of an Indian' at Download Native American graphics from Camp out in 'Authentic Handmade Tipis' from Learn a Native American language at The more one surfs, the more hectic the traffic becomes. 'Native Art Speaks Get The Message' shouts, but who is it addressing, and what exactly is the message? How much of this apparently complex system is nothing but a monstrous, multi-facetted projection - a gigantic chimera? How is it generated? Where is its substance? From what base does it emanate?

Next page


1. William Gibson, Idoru, Penguin 1997, p.1. back to article

2. Sky City pamphlet, 2000 back to article

3. This is a theme that has been thoroughly pursued by other writers; see for example Petersen, Susan Pottery by American Indian Women: The Legacy of Generations Museum of Women in the Arts, Washington DC, 1997. Also, Vincentelli, Moira Women and Ceramics, Gendered Vessels Manchester University Press 2000. back to article

4. Margaret Tafoya (1905-2001) potter of Santa Clara Pueblo, quoted in Fauntleroy, Gussie 'great women potters of the past' in Native Peoples, Art and Lifeways Sept/Oct 2001, p.26. back to article

5. 30/1/02 back to article

6. The 'shopping basket' is the web page with order form etc. that enables customers to buy goods direct from the site. The only object that can be ordered direct from this site is a 'hard copy' catalogue. back to article

7. 17/4/02 back to article

8. Hays, Allan and Blom, John Southwestern Pottery Anasazi to Zuni U.S.A 1994 back to article

9. 2/9/01 back to article

10. This was still the case on 17/4/02. See back to article

11. Clifford, James The Predicament of Culture Harvard University 1988, p.224-225. back to article

12. The word 'collector' is much used on pueblo pottery web sites. It often has a euphemistic sense, in that all the objects in the 'collection' are actually for sale. back to article

Top of the page | Download Word document | Next page


Jo Dahn

The Origins and Survival of Littlethorpe Potteries in the Context of British Country Pottery-Making'
Richard Carlton

Design in Center and Periphery: Three Generations of Armenian Ceramic Artists in Jerusalem
Nurith Kenaan-Kedar
Tel-Aviv University


PuebloPotteryDotCom  • Issue 4