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CLAY POTTERY, LIVING POTS, AND KILN MAGIC:  JICARILLA APACHE POTTERY AND COSMOLOGY IN THE POST-MODERN CONTEXT OF SANTA FE STYLE.

PAPER PRESENTED AT "PASSAGES TO ANTHROPOLOGY"

GRADUATE SYMPOSIUM, UNIVERSITY OF MICHIGAN, ANN ARBOR

DEPARTMENT OF ANTHROPOLOGY

9 JANUARY 1999

B. SUNDAY EISELT

INTRODUCTION

During predissertation field research in the summer of 1998, I spent several weeks in La Madera, New Mexico as a pottery apprentice to Mr. Felipe Ortega. Felipe is a Smithsonian recognized master potter in the Jicarilla Apache tradition who is Jicarilla and Hispanic by blood. He is not a reservation Indian, rather he lives in a remote New Mexican Hispanic village, keeping ties with his Jicarilla relatives on the reservation as time permits. Felipe holds a Masters degree in Christian Theology from the Chicago Seminary and is a Penetente singer. He teaches pottery internationally upon invitation, at Northern New Mexico Community College every other semester, and in his own studio on a regular basis. He is a practicing shaman whose skills as a folk psychologist are sought by Hispanics, Puebloans, Jicarilla, and Whites alike. Felipe also is a two-spirit, meaning that he is both male and female or neither when it suits him.

Living at Felipe’s house is like joining the cast of a Broadway musical. A typical day begins at 8:00 am when he showers and goes downstairs to light a fire in the wood stove. The phone begins ringing at 8:30 and won’t stop until 10:00pm. Clients call to place orders for more pottery, and a reporter might call to try once again to set up a time for an interview. Friends call regularly wanting help to resolve some personal crisis or just to catch up, and visitors revolve on stage from everywhere. In the spotlight of one moment you could be speaking to a Jicarilla Peyote road master, or at center stage the next, bumping into a New Age mystic. A van load of young bohemian artists looking for adventure might pass a truck load of conservative Puebloan friends in the driveway, coming to ask Felipe to cook bread for their feast in his horno. Potential and realized boyfriends float in and out of Felipe’s kitchen bearing gifts of food and laughter while medicine clients come and go with the weight of their tragedies hanging in the smoke of a medicine session. And each day this unfolding drama keeps time to the melodic rhythms of sandpaper gliding on smooth-bellied pots.

I came to Felipe to learn Jicarilla micaceous clay pottery techniques as an archaeologist interested in understanding pottery on sites from the standpoint of the artist. My interest in Jicarilla micaceous pottery was therefore very much embedded in the past, object centered, and materialist. Archaeologists tend to view materials as objects that carry information about social phenomena. Artifacts thus are conceived of as commodities that can have economic, use, and esteem values. The material properties and depositional contexts of objects found in the archaeological record are seen as signaling past social structures and processes. Rarely do we consider objects to have a cultural biography of their own intimately linked to a set of beliefs about that object’s affect on people. Today I will explore this issue by presenting you with a little story about the social life of a set of objects as they relate to the construction of Indian identity in the post-modern context of Santa Fe style.

THE JICARILLA APACHE IN HISTORICAL CONTEXT

The Jicarilla Apache Indians once claimed a territory encompassing most of north central New Mexico. During the 1800s, Euroamerican populations began to grow rapidly in New Mexico and push out in an expanding front into the heart of Jicarilla territory. This expansion led to a general decline in traditional Jicarilla cultural and economic lifeways and the subsequent institution of the ration system by the U.S. government. The Jicarilla attempted to maintain their economic viability through subsidizing their rations with the sale of micaceous clay pottery, basketry, bison products and labor to European households. Some were farmers working their own fields or those of the surrounding settlers. Women and two-spirits sold a distinctive cookware pottery with thin walls made from golden micaceous clay to these same people. The U.S. government finally completed the cycle of dependence in 1890 by settling the Jicarilla on a reservation at the northern border of New Mexico, thereby limiting their farming and economic trade. Many resisted and attempted to assimilate into remote Hispanic communities. Felipe’s ancestors were among some of those that successfully settled privately in one of the richest micaceous clay districts in New Mexico. They intermarried with the Hispanic community, went on with their lives, and soon disappeared in the eyes of the government.

TOURISM IN THE SOUTHWEST

During the early 20th century, the process of Euroamerican domination of the Southwest entered a new phase when Fred Harvey among others began developing the tourism industry in Santa Fe through the promotion of Native American crafts for sale to travelers. Soon wealthy tourists could come to Santa Fe and be transported in time to a place where the sun cast shadows over haunting ruins and indigenous people were available as living curiosities and convenient producers of marketplace goods. Sale of Indian crafts provided mementos of the experience sold by cryptically shrouded Pueblo women bearing pots, meeting customers at the train or positioning themselves at the Palace of the Governors on the plaza downtown.

Today tourism is the leading economic industry of the Santa Fe area. Tourists now wade through the airport amongst a bewildering assortment of ceramic howling coyotes, cacti, and hanging chilies as they make their way from their planes to their baggage. The tradition of selling Indian crafts at the Palace of the Governors was institutionalized as the Santa Fe Indian Market in 1922 by Edgar Lee Hewett. Held for two days every summer at the end of August, the Indian Market showcases the contemporary arts of over 100 tribes in the southwest and elsewhere. More than 600 booths representing as many as 1200 artists are erected in downtown Santa Fe. Millions of dollars change hands over this forty-eight hour period as over 100,000 collectors and tourists flood the city. Some heralded artists will make up to 50,000 or 100,000 dollars selling their year’s work that they then use to support their families. The Indian Market is sponsored and overseen by the Southwestern Association for Indian Arts (SWAIA). In their own words…

 

 

"Quality is the hallmark of Indian Market. The planning process includes an experienced committee that screens artist entries for quality and authenticity. SWAIA also has art experts who conduct on-site inspections of all artist booths during the Market to ensure that quality standards are maintained." (SWAIA Web Page: http://www.niti.org/swaia/imarket.htm. 1998)

 

 

In the context of the Santa Fe Indian Market, blood genealogy is the hallmark of authenticity. The SWAIA does not allow the entry of artists who do not have official government recognition, a green card, as many reservation Indians call it. Artists also package pieces with information about their own heritage and genealogy, using expansive kinship charts to show their relationship to past and present famous artists. Indian identity is in essence is actively created and sold both by the SWAIA and Indian artists alike catering to rich tastes by weaving together tradition and beauty. In the end, the two worlds part, disengaging from the tapestry of this capitalistic enterprise to return to their normal lives. Buyers place their purchases on display to signal their appreciation of Indian cultures, and Indians spend their money on family necessities and desires.

HANDBUILDING THE MASTER AND THE FIRE OF LIFE

My friend Felipe Ortega is not a part of this world because he is not a full-blood Indian. He does not meet the "high quality" standards set by the SWAIA based on blood quantum measures and governmental recognition. But Felipe is a sought after artist, pursued in many ways by buyers and Indian potters alike. He is a mentor to all of the young Jicarilla micaceous potters and many Pueblo potters selling their work at the Indian Market and elsewhere. His own vessels are used to cook the haute cuisine served at Pasqual’s in Santa Fe, and they are displayed on cast iron stove eyes in the exclusive Zocolo gallery as cook ware that is beautiful to cook with. Micaceous pottery is actually an excellent cookware. Self- tempering mica inclusions act as a heat insulator protecting the pot from exploding on an open flame. Mica clay also seasons the food that it holds during cooking, bringing out the full-bodied flavors of such things as posole, chilies, and meat. For practical and aesthetic reasons, mica pottery is the hallmark of traditional Jicarilla and Hispanic cooking, and in the discriminating world of Santa Fe cuisine, Felipe markets his pottery as the interpolation of wellness, feasting and beauty.

Felipe has defined his own Indian identity through the Jicarilla philosophy about the creation and use of micaceous clay pottery. Wellness and balance are achieved by knowing yourself and your relationship to the living landscape. This state is perpetuated through the consumption of food, a sacred act that brings people together. Clay for cooking vessels is extracted from shining micaceous clay beds. Sprinkling a pinch of blue cornmeal into the glistening pit, Felipe repeats the prayer taught to him by his own mentor, a Jicarilla Hispanic named Josepha. "Mother forgive me for digging into your belly to get the clay to make your children." The words intermingle with the sound of the whispering pines as a pick strikes the ground with a hollow thud. Coming from the earth, clay carries the life force of the cosmic mother. When that clay is brought back and made into a pot by an individual, the creation act represents a union between that life force and the artist. Through mixing, patting, pinching and scraping, the artist creates a new clay individual who like an actual child, displays their personality and mood at the time of creation.

 

Each clay pot is imbued with life that is formed during its production. This life is only fully realized when the vessel is used for food consumption, thus completing the cycle between the cosmos, the living landscape and people. As micaceous pots age on the stove, they turn from golden orange to sparkling ginger and finally deep to black, signaling their participation as facilitators in this cycle of wellness.

CONSTRUCTING THIS IDENTITY

Felipe’s identity as a Jicarilla is thus constructed through pottery, but this identity is just one of many that he dons and casts with the changing ensemble of his audience, an ambiguity that in the beginning challenged my conceptions of cultural authenticity. Was I learning deep cosmological truths through the metaphor of pottery from a "true" Jicarilla mystic? Or was I just a nave anthropologist holding on to the tail of a coyote trickster? I think every anthropology student probably feels the rise of excitement mixed with uneasiness when a consultant defies categorization, when they are a person who like an elusive beam of light, dances on the edges of many cultures. For me, that beam of light danced in the reflection of a hundred sparkling vessels. I was soon to learn that such ambiguity is actually the source of personal power among Pueblos and Jicarilla alike as much as it is a source of free-fall excitement for the understanding anthropologist. My own dilemma was compounded by the comments of a few misguided local archaeologists who warned me about taking Felipe’s "authenticity" too seriously. Yet I wondered what was the basis for this dismissal as I watched Felipe interact with reservation and Puebloan Indians. I decided that the few archaeologists I spoke to could not see through their own constructions of Indian identity. A little story about kiln magic will illustrate my insight into cultural authenticity and its relation to pottery production.

WHERE THERE ARE WITCHES

Pottery is born amongst the flames of a kiln. Because it is a time of birth, firing represents a dangerous moment. A potter should be careful not to have sexual or malignant thoughts, and kilns can become infected directly by witchcraft or indirectly by ghosts. This can become a serious problem for potters who may loose months of work and thousands of dollars if their pottery explodes upon firing two days before Indian Market. This is what happened to one of Felipe’s Puebloan friends. It began with a phone message retrieved one night after our daily trip to the mineral springs. "Felipe. Just called to talk. Feeling okay about Indian Market. Call me." "That’s the Tewa way for expressing concern" said Felipe. "He didn’t do well at Market. Over half of his pots were lost at the kiln and the rest didn’t sell very well. Over 40,000 dollars lost that way. His brother, you know the quiet one. He sands the pots. Well, his arm went limp just before market and he couldn’t sand. Before that, his leg went numb during the Eight-Northern Market in July. They had a Chindi (a Navajo ghost). I had to take it off the property."

The friend and his brother soon arrived for a medicine session. After some polite conversation and hand shaking all around, I went to bed. I woke the next morning to a medicine room full of groceries and gifts left by the potter and his brother. As I was pulling the bags into the kitchen, I stopped to smell the burned juniper still left in the micaceous pot from last night’s medicine session. The bison skin rug it was sitting on was looking a little worse for the wear, but the pot was bright and shiny. Another pot held water with a few ashes floating on top. I put the groceries away and pensively awaited news of the diagnosis. "The kiln was witched" said Felipe as he walked by pulling a comb through his long wet hair "by a Pueblo woman out for revenge. And the Chindi is back. I have to go down tomorrow and cleanse the kiln and get the Chindi off the property. My friend is too wrapped up in making money and he’s broken the cycle by selling those ridiculously big, unusable pots so they can just sit in some high rise business office. Big is overrated. I tell you, less is best. But boy was that dumb not to cleanse the kiln on such an important day." He shuffled out of the kitchen clasping a steaming cup of morning coffee. My eyes followed him, stopping as he passed under a naked and headless image of the sacrificial Christ, sublimely carved except for a gnarled and jagged neck. My eyes paused there watching the way a morning shaft of light reflected off the sparkling micaceous adobe wall and back-lit the image hanging there.

"Not like my Jicarilla student" he called out as another mica pot came off the shelf and dropped with a ring on the wood stove. "The one that came over before Indian Market to fire her pots. Those were nice pots. Paper thin. She knew they were safe here ‘cause I make sure my kiln is clean and her pots were prayed over. She won best of show and sold everything by ten o’clock the first day. She can’t eat out of those pots, but she’s taken the Jicarilla tradition of thin walled pottery and pushed that to an extreme. She has taken micaceous clay pottery art to a new level." He made this last point by shaking one finger in the air as he stirred last night’s posole in a well-worn pot with a chip in the rim. Then he let his hand drift to his side where I could see the contours of its veins and muscles developed from years of working clay. " When she matures, her appreciation for utility ware will blossom, and I hope I can be a judge at her first contest with a utility ware submission." As he spoke I handed him a few more eggs and nodded, remembering the look on her face as she carefully rubbed the ashes off pot after pot.

My experience with Felipe this summer raised some interesting issues in my thinking, many of which may never be realized with archaeological data alone. The ethnographic experience, however, was crucial for my development as an anthropologist. I came to Felipe to learn about Jicarilla pottery so I could analyze archaeological materials more thoroughly. My initial attitude was materialistic. His response was more holistic. "Teach me to do" I said, and he replied. "Honey, I teach people how to be. Only then do they learn how to do. This is mica bootcamp sweetie, and don’t you forget it." Then he turned on one heel and walked away. My lessons were thus couched in terms of personal balance, clarity, and wellness with a bit of humor for effect.

Only by making, cooking in, washing, and eating from micaceous pottery, did I begin to understand that the vessel itself has a cultural biography, a social life in which its context shapes its value as an object participating in a dynamic cultural nexus. Micaceous pottery today moves along that nexus as it touches witchcraft, capitalism and blood quantum politics. In the past it probably moved along a similar trajectory.

I may never know, but at least I can now imagine……

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