Nampeyo, or "snake that does not bite," is one of the most famous potters in Native American history. The exact date of her birth is unknown, but scholars estimate that she was born on the Hopi-Tewa reservation around 1860. She became world-famous during the beginning of the twentieth century, and she is accredited with reviving the traditional Sikyatki period pottery.
Hopi pottery, because of its elegant craftsmanship and detailed designs, are some of the most coveted Southwest artifacts. Hopi is a general term for many different groups pueblo people native to the Four-corners area. Starting in the late nineteenth century, the United States defeated the Spanish and acquired Arizona as a territory. There was a surge of fascination about the new territory, and archaeologists began to excavate the old pueblo of Sikyatki. Luckily for Nampeyo, she was able to study the style and develop her own techniques because her husband Lesou worked on the Sikyatki excavation site and brought her samples and shards of pottery.
Traditional Hopi pottery begins with the gathering of the clay. Hopi children learn to work with clay from their family, and it is highly traditional. Families work together and visit guarded locations to find the best clay. The clay is then cleaned of impurities; any impurity could cause the clay to explode when fired. From here, the clay is mixed with old pottery shards for bonding, and finally mixed with water to make mailable clay. The vessel is formed by making "puki," or coils, and is built up one coil at a time. A scraping device is used to create a smooth final surface. Once the piece is polished to a high sheen it is left to dry for three to seven days; when it dries completely, it is ready to be fired.
Firing clay is always the most dangerous part. All of that hard work could be for nothing if the piece is destroyed by firing. The Hopi people use dung to create very high heat. The piece is placed in the burn pit surrounded by shards of old clay for protection, because any flame near the design will smudge paint. Finally the finished product is ready, and can be used or sold, if it survives the firing process.
Like many Hopi crafts aficionados, Nampeyo believed that pottery styles from the Sikyatki period were superior. Nampeyo lived during a time when interest in the territories of the American West were high. Beginning in the nineteenth century, there was a high demand for Southwest artifacts. For many Americans the Southwest carries a mystique of wide open space, impressive canyons, and ancient indigenous civilizations. Nampeyo has become an icon of Native American heritage, and her image is a symbol of the Hopi people.
Women like Nampeyo have helped to preserve American Indian history. In the twentieth century Native Americans still struggled with cultural extinction. Nampeyo's art breathed new life into Hopi pottery, and in her lifetime she was very successful . Even today, Nampeyo remains one of the most celebrated Native American artists. Nampeyo's work has come to be synonymous with Southwestern design, a symbol of American Indian heritage, and her contribution to American history is priceless. Today Nampeyo's work can be seen at the Smithsonian Museum and at the Arizona State Museum in Tucson, Arizona.