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Iris Nampeyo  (b. 1860, d. 1942)
Nampeyo, Hopi-Tewa potter Nampeyo and her family at the Hopi House,
Grand Canyon
Iris Nampeyo became one of the most prolific, distinguished, and influential of American Indian women potters. Her revival and creative use of ancient firing and painting techniques brought her acclaim and influenced the art of her Hopi pueblo from the late 19th century to the present. Through her example, her descendants and the Hopi-Tewa people gained a new artistic direction that led to prosperity and national renown.

Region: Northern Arizona
Theme: Women in the Arts

Born at Hano, a Tewa-speaking village of Hopi First Mesa in northern Arizona, Nampeyo learned to make pottery from her mother, White Corn, of the Tewa Corn Clan. She married Lesso, of Cedarwood clan, Walpi, in 1878, and they had five children.

Trading posts were established in northern Arizona during the 1870s; Nampeyo sold her pottery to traders, including Thomas V. Keam and Tom Pavatea. In the 1880s, she and other Hopi potters found inspiration for new designs from pottery recovered at nearby sites that were inhabited from 1400 to 1600 A.D. Excavations led by James Stevenson, from the Bureau of Ethnology, and then J. Walter Fewkes, of the Smithsonian Institution, fed the creativity of Nampeyo and other Hopi potters. Nampeyo incorporated elements of the ancients' Sikyatki polychrome pottery style and infused them with her own ingenious artistic brushwork and interpretation.

Nampeyo was one of the first American Indian women to achieve personal recognition for her pottery. She demonstrated pottery making at the United States Land and Irrigation Exposition in Chicago in 1910. Both museum experts and business owners were awed by her work. Through photographs distributed by the Fred Harvey Company, along with her live pottery demonstrations and sales at the Watchtower and Hopi House at the Grand Canyon, Nampeyo and her pottery became famous.

Nampeyo began to lose her sight when she was in her 60s. Unable to paint her fine designs as her condition worsened, she asked her daughters to paint them. She never learned to read or write and did not sign her work; Harvey Company employees sometimes identified it with a sticker. At the end of Nampeyo's career, her daughters signed a few of her pieces which are now in major museums.

For more information, see Nampeyo and Her Pottery by Barbara Kramer.

Photo Credits:
Nampeyo, Hopi-Tewa potter - Courtesy of Library of Congress
Nampeyo and her family at the Hopi House, Grand Canyon - Courtesy of the National Park Service (09826)

 

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