The Catawba Indian community of York County, South Carolina, is renowned for its elegant, traditional hand-built pottery. Catawba wares reside in major national and international museum collections--one Catawba jar even graces the White House library. The distinctive burnished earthenware vessels have come to symbolize "Catawbaness" to the world. Within the Catawba community, pottery--and potting--represent group identity to a remarkable degree. Catawba families recite lineages of master potters and treasure heirloom potter's tools, especially the "rubbing rocks" or burnishing pebbles that produce the distinctive polished surfaces of Catawba vessels.
The deep significance of pottery to Catawba culture and identity reflects the importance of ceramics in the nation's historical experience, and the evolution of Catawba pottery styles mirrors trends in the community's economic and social life. Contemporary Catawba Indian potters are heirs to an ancient ceramic tradition that spans four millennia. Within this tradition, native potters have continuously innovated materials, building techniques, vessel forms, and decorative treatments to serve the changing needs of their communities.
Up until about 1760, Catawba potters made strictly domestic wares in the widespread South Appalachian Mississippian pottery tradition--large, grit-tempered hominy jars, decorated with carved wooden paddle stamps or cord wrapped paddle stamps, and plain bowls with incised decorations. Closely affiliated refugee groups who lived under Catawba protection, such as the Waterees, Cheraws, and Sugarees, probably blended their traditional pottery styles with that of the Catawbas. Then, in late 1759, a devastating smallpox epidemic swept the Catawba Nation, killing almost half of the community. The survivors abandoned their settlements at Nation Ford (present-day Fort Mill, South Carolina) and regrouped near English communities at present-day Camden, where Catawba potters began selling pottery for English tables in the backcountry settlements. When they returned to their home territory around 1762, Catawba women radically changed their pottery style and began building plain or polished plates, cups, pans, pipkins, and other English forms for market. This transformation set the stage for the modern Catawba pottery tradition by establishing fine-bodied, temperless plainwares as the new standard.
By the end of the eighteenth century, the pottery trade was a major component of the Catawba economy. Potters traveled as far as Charleston, building and selling thousands of vessels every year to eager customers on plantations and in towns. This trade in utilitarian pottery greatly diminished around 1840, but continued on a more local basis into the twentieth century. After 1900, Catawba potters reoriented their production to meet growing demand by tourists and curiosity seekers hungry for souvenirs of the "vanishing red man," a fashionable romantic myth. New forms, such as miniature clay canoes, animal effigies, and jars with "chief's head" adornments became popular. The new face of the pottery trade was fueled by a tourism boom in Cherokee, North Carolina, where shops sold Catawba pottery as Indian souvenirs.
Catawba potting was also buoyed in the twentieth century by increasing demand for "living history" exhibitions. Beginning in the late 1920s, Catawba potters participated in exhibitions for museums, historical reconstructions, colleges, and other venues, steadily garnering attention for Catawba ceramic art and tradition. …