Photo by Kerri Cottle
All of the pots being displayed at the Poeh Cultural Center and Museum were utilitarian pots, not art objects, like this one from 1850.

9 Tewa Ceramic Pots Lead the Way Home, 91 More to Follow

Frances Madeson

Ceramic pots from the Pueblos of Ohkay Owingeh, Nambe, Pojoaque, San Ildefonso, Santa Clara and Tesuque were liberated from a Smithsonian Institution storage vault in Suitland, Maryland, where they had been stored for more than a century. Packed into customized crates built especially for their homecoming, loaded onto a delivery truck and transported across nine states to Pojoaque, New Mexico,  “In T’owa Vi Sae’We” or “The People’s Pots” have come home to Tewa lands and peoples.

They have also returned, as Pueblo of Pojoaque Governor Joseph Talachy has said, to “Tewa breath, Tewa hands.” They were greeted with prayers and continue to be prayed for.

Talachy described a sense of relief at their safe arrival at the Poeh Cultural Center and Museum where they will be displayed together in a single display case.

“It’s like welcoming family members or old friends,” he said. “You almost want to hug them.”

On October 21 and 22, the exhibition of the pots occasioned a two-day community celebration that included traditional dancing, delicious food catered from the pueblo’s Buffalo Thunder Resort, demonstrations by traditional ceramicists, and heartfelt words from all concerned.

“Poeh means pathway,” said Karl Duncan, the Poeh’s executive director. “We’re happy to be able to bring people together with these particular pieces of the community that have been gone; we’re happy that the pots are back on the path that they came from, in the territory in which they were made. We feel blessed to have them back.”

A smooth and positive process was put in place for their return. A Tewa advisory committee was convened to establish principles for the transfer of the pots from the Smithsonian to the Poeh. They requested slides of the objects, and eventually traveled east as a group to go to the vault to visit the pots, which were not originally created as art objects, but for utilitarian purposes—to hold food and water. Those ultimately requested, though meaningful to their communities, were not “sacred,” and therefore not subject to the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, which might have bogged things down.

“This is a loan, not a repatriation,” explained Bruce Bernstein, Director of the Continuous Pathways Foundation, whose mission is to support the cultivation and continuation of culture for the Pueblo of Pojoaque and northern New Mexico region. “Museums are built to loan. Repatriation is a special circumstance and not part of the conversation we’re having.”

“We stayed away from items that would be contentious,” Duncan explained. “We wanted to be as broad and general as possible.”

And the team avoided items that had been signed by the potters.

“No signatures,” Duncan explained. “We wanted the exhibit to be historic in nature, to show the context of what was made here before pottery was commercialized.”

Bernstein views the return of the pots as “a moment of satisfaction, well-being and healing that speaks to reuniting culture with art.” He thinks of the years the pots were away as time that “these beautiful, gorgeous beings did their work as strong embodiments of Tewa values, serving as representatives of the persistence and inevitability of Tewa culture, the persistence of people always moving forward on the pathway.”

According to Duncan, traditional pottery practices are at risk. The numbers of potters using the coil method, firing in hand built fires, not kilns, are dwindling, and some styles and techniques have already been lost. Among the 100 pots intended to be housed at the Poeh from the Smithsonian’s collection, there are some he said that “people don’t currently know how they were made.”

A revival of traditional pottery practices among the younger generations is another main intention of the loan.

“These nine pots will now be closer to their home communities to provide artistic inspiration for emerging and established Native artists,” said Cynthia Chavez Lamar, Assistant Director For Collections of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian.

Chavez Lamar, who is from nearby San Felipe Pueblo, could not hold back tears of joy as she acknowledged the significance of the return of the objects to their homelands, and the potential for the future.

The Poeh has received a $1.2 million Cargill grant, which will provide funding to support the return of the pots and the emergence of the Poeh as a regional institution for the flourishing of ceramic traditions.

“Local people will not have to go elsewhere to quench their thirst for knowledge and satisfy their curiosity about Tewa ceramics,” Talachy said.

The Poeh’s staff will get training from museum professionals on collection care, registration of items and their preservation, in a continuing partnership with the Smithsonian.

The hope is that similar partnerships with other lending institutions, universities, and local private collectors can be established.

“If they want to be part of this story and this path, we welcome them,” Duncan said.

While the Tewa people delight in the successful return of a hundred beings feared lost to them, Talachy has been pondering the mystery of the timing of all of this, and wondering whose agency actually made it happen.

“I honestly do not know if it was all of us that brought the pots home,” he mused, “or if the pots themselves decided it was time.”

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Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act