Something to be told or talked about

Aaaahhh.  Rain/Ju:k has arrived, a little late, but aaaahhh.  Thankfully, we close our eyes and treasure that smell. THAT smell – I just learned that in 1964 it was given an official name: petrichor and comes from two Greek words.  “Petra” means stone and “ichor” means blood of the gods.  Seems like a really fitting word. A chemical interaction of certain plants and clay-based soils through dry and wet seasons creates that smell. Clay/bi:t is key to that aroma.  

Clay.  While out on desert walk-abouts, we sometimes find bits of pottery.  Makes you wonder about the hands that worked clay to shape and design those little treasures.  We leave them where we find them so others can delight, too.  


I came across an excellent quick read, Dirt For Making Things, by Janet Stoeppelmann. The 1995 book is about Mary Fernald, who tells of her experience with Maricopa potters Mabel Sunn, Ida Redbird, and other Maricopa potters of the early 1970s.   Mary Fernald decided to write her 1973 Master’s thesis “A Study of Maricopa Pottery.” Around 1993, Janet Stoeppelmann persuaded Mary Fernald to tell the story behind the story of gathering information from the potters which is how Dirt For Making Things came to be written. Some readers may see relatives mentioned in that book and this article.  But first a short background about the Maricopa.  Robert Hackenberg published Aboriginal Land Use and Occupancy of the Pima-Maricopa Indians in 1974 and stated the Maricopa’s stomping grounds were along the Colorado River, as part of the Yuman culture.  Five groups --the Maricopa (Cocomaricopa), Kaveltcadom (Opa), Halchidhoma, Kohuana and the Halyikwamai --began moving to our area as early as the mid-1500s. Today the western part of the Gila River Indian Community is home to most of the Maricopa/Piipaash/Pee-Posh. The Halchidhoma/ Xalychidom reside at Lehi on the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Reservation.


Maricopa may have come from the Spanish word “mariposa.” Maricopa women often painted butterfly wings as decorations on their faces and bodies, according to the Dirt For Making Things book.  When the Southern Pacific Railroad was laid through Maricopa in the 1880s, it presented a new venue to sell Maricopa pottery.  From 1912 to 1937, Maricopa pottery wasn’t of high quality, because tourists didn’t care for quality as long as the pottery was cheap. Pottery went for a quarter or fifty cents. An early Laveen resident remembers Maricopa potters and O’otham basket makers selling their wares at Walgreens Drug on Central Avenue in Phoenix. In 1935, Ms. Elizabeth Hart, an extension agent of the Indian Service,  arrived on Gila River and began an effort to improve the quality of Maricopa pottery. She established quality standards in an effort to raise prices and formed a Maricopa Pottery Association. Original members were Mary Juan, Pearl Miller, Lena Meskeet, Sallie McKinley, Maggie Colt, Alma Lawrence, Lula Young, Lou Johnson, Ruth Anton, Mary Loring, Susie Sundust, Grace Percherro,  Agnes and Josephine Bread, Cora and Mae Smith. 


Soon Maricopa pottery was earning high praise at a Phoenix Chamber of Commerce Convention and the Gallup Inter-Tribal Arts and Crafts Exhibition of 1938. The face and spokeswoman of the group was Ida Redbird. She was talkative, forward in thought, much like her grandfather, Last Star. At the dawn of the 1900s, Last Star predicted men would fly in the air, travel among the stars, and be able to see people far away. When a young potter was questioned because her pot did not look “traditional,”  Redbird spoke up and said the Maricopa potter was “trying a new idea.” Ms. Fernald surmised Maricopa pottery survived by allowing potters to experiment, borrow from the old and “outside” to express what the potter felt.  The photographs in the book exhibit such an evolution:  reptiles drawn and added on, faces, human forms, differing shades and colors, highly polished, and long necked pots created to sell.  With the onset of World War II, Maricopa potters stopped using the swastika design because tourists would not buy them. Cultures worldwide had used the design to represent the four directions, the universe, the wheel of life, and a supreme deity.  German Nazis took over that symbol, changed it to represent evil and ugliness. 


Back to beauty. Actress Lupita Nyongo’o of Star Wars and Black Panther fame said, “Clay can be dirt in the wrong hands, but in the right hands it can be art.”  

Maricopa potters of the past, present and future have shown they have the right hands to use bi:t for art. Clay gives us perfume and beauty.   

All O’odham/O’otham are one but are different political entities and each has determined their own writing systems. The Gila River website uses a phonetic spelling, Pee Posh while the Salt River website uses Piipaash, of the Alvarez/Hale/Zepeda orthography. Learn the system of your reservation or background and keep up the effort to communicate in O’odham/O’otham.


Information came from websites;; and