Sunday, April 26, 2009


A superb example of Bonnie's polychrome pottery


My love of Native American culture led me to study with the Hopi Indians. I never met the most important influence in my knowledge of Hopi art. Her name was Nampeyo. She was born around 1860 at First Mesa, Arizona and became a potter early in life. Eventually, she produced unique pottery designs that were universally acknowledged to be far more beautiful than the designs typically found in Hopi pottery at that time. Her husband, Lesou, brought her many of the designs she adopted. He found these on shards of prehistoric pottery he dug up while working as part of a crew at Sikyatki, an ancient archaeological site. Nampeyo and Lesou used these forgotten designs exclusively on their pottery. Today, their descendants carry on their style of pottery design and production.

I traveled to ISOMATA, the Idyllwild School of Music and the Arts, to study with my Hopi teachers. The school is located in California’s San Jacinto Mountains which rise from the desert to an elevation of 10,835 feet. Bonnie Shamie Nampeyo, a great-granddaughter of Nampeyo and Lesou, was my principle teacher in the art and technology of polychrome pottery. Her husband, Earnest Chapella, assisted her as did several members of their family who had traveled from Polacca, Arizona to Idyllwild. (Earnest is also known for his hand-carved wooden kachinas).

Earnest Chapella carving a kachina

Having spent my entire life immersed in the arts, it surprised me when Bonnie insisted that our pottery designs conform to the ancient patterns Nampeyo and Lesou had rediscovered. I have always made a point to use my own designs for anything I create. I could not understand why we were limited to someone else's designs in our pottery. When I asked, the answer was simple – “tradition."

Bonnie, a classmate, and I designing our polychrome pottery

Burnishing pottery

We used clay that had been gathered from the same Sityatki site where Lesou found the ancient designs. It was a dense, red-colored clay that was gathered from a narrow ledge in the canyon by the mesa. We carefully sculpted pots in the same shape that had been created by the Hopi ancestors for generations. Once the clay had dried for a few days, we burnished it with petrified rock. The burnishing had to be done carefully to avoid cracking the fragile pot. We then shaped a yucca brush with our mouths by chewing it to a point and used it to apply a stain made of iron ore and beeplant. For the final step, we took our pottery for the sacred firing.

Bonnie forming yucca brush tip

Applying iron ore and beeplant stain


At ISOMATA, we fired our pottery in a traditional Hopi sheep dung kiln. In an area outside of our classroom, Earnest delivered several truckloads of sheep dung. The members of the class were told that we were to break the sheep dung into small flat pieces with a spade until we had enough to build our kiln. I wondered why we were using sheep dung instead of pony dung, which was much more plentiful. I was given the same answer as before – "tradition." It is a tradition that the Hopi have followed for as long as anyone can remember. We spent hours laboriously building the kiln, layer upon layer, until it was about 2 feet high.

Breaking sheep dung for the kiln

We then placed our precious pottery inside for the day-long firing. Of all the days at ISOMATA, the day of the firing was my favorite.

Firing pottery in the kiln

While we waited, all the Hopis gathered around the kiln and told stories. I asked one elderly man if he was sorry that technology had usurped the ancient art of storytelling. His answer surprised me. He said that he was very sorry that the tape recorder had not yet been invented when the Hopi legends were sung by people like his great-grandmother. He remembers her singing a strange song. The song told of things that already had happened and were to come. She sang of the atom bomb before it was invented. She sang of Spider Woman and of how one day she would weave her web around the entire planet.

Dreamcatcher, a symbolic representation of the Spider Woman's web

When I took this class many years ago, computers were much less powerful than they are now. I never would have guessed then that there could be such a thing as today’s world wide web. Is the modern internet the Spider Woman’s web that the old man’s great grandmother sang about? He said she sang of many other amazing things but that the family did not remember all the words now. Even though he heard bits of it in his mind, he longed to hear the lilting, chanting premonitions of things to come that she sang so long ago.

Finally, after many, many stories, our kiln was cool enough for us to reclaim our treasures. Everything emerged from the kiln perfectly fired. I sold some of my work from the class when I came home, but kept a few choice pieces. I also bought one of Bonnie's lovely polychrome bowls. She signed it with the legendary corn sheaf.

Removing pottery from the sheep dung kiln

I became close to Bonnie and her family over the years. Even though there were many of the tribe who refused to have their pictures taken – saying that to do so would take part of their soul – Bonnie, Earnest and their children readily agreed to have their picture taken with me. She told me to consider them family.

Earnest, Bonnie and children

In my book, She Who Whispers, I included two stories depicting Hopi life. One I titled Nampeyo and the other Sityakti. I also have sculpted numerous Hopi women with pots.

Click here to view She Who Whispers on Etsy site

For anyone interested in reading about Nampeyo and seeing her incredible pottery, I recommend the book Seven Families in Pueblo Pottery. This book was compiled by the Maxwell Museum of Anthropology, University of New Mexico and is available from the University of New Mexico Press, ISBN 0-8263-0388-9.

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  1. Just wonderful. What a blessing that you were able to learn this. I understand the taking pictures part. And staying within tradition with the Hopi's. They are few in number..but very a spiritual people. LOl....I'll never eat lamb there again though...was sick for But the colors of the earth there is so unique. ANd love the blue corn. My cousin Robyn is a Shaman... she lives in NM. She was taught for a few yrs mostly because her son is handicap, to better take care of him. I used to teach pottery...but only greenware, bisque and stoneware. Always wanted to learn how to make pottery with an outside kiln....neat. Thank you for sharing.

  2. I would like to thank The people that have this site, l loved seeing my family again as a whole. Thank you for The time that we spent getting to know The peoole At The School.
    - Doyle Chapella

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