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Nampeyo — 1859-1942

Nampeyo, Hopi pottery maker, seated, with examples of her work, cropped Image Source: Henry Peabody, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Nampeyo was born in Hano, a small Hopi-Tewa village on the First Mesa in Arizona. Her father was Hopi and her mother was Tewa. She grew up with her mother’s corn clan family. As a child she would have spent her days helping to carry water, grind corn and plant crops. She credited her mother with teaching her the craft of pottery making.

Since the Hopi lived in the same area as their ancestors, Nampeyo was able to study ancient fragments of old pottery. She began to decorate her own pots with designs inspired by the ancient potters. William Henry Jackson, the noted western photographer happened to take pictures of the 15-year old Hano native during the 1875 Hayden Survey of Western America.

That same year the first trading post was established on the Hopi Reservation by Thomas Keam. He promoted the making and sale of Hopi artifacts to help the Hopi enhance their meager earning power. It is almost certain that Nampeyo was bringing pots to Keam and receiving money in return.

Nampeyo used traditional methods to make the pots. She painted them using her own handmade yucca brushes and firing the pots in an outdoor oven. Her style is characterized by geometric figures and pictures of animals and faces. She used a yellowish clay to produce smooth, dense pots. Nampeyo’s new designs used the old as a stepping stone, but not as a copy. She is credited with the birth of contemporary Hopi pottery, now called Hano polychrome. Her pottery making became known to traders and anthropologists who came to the Southwest in the 1880s and 1890s.

Her fame spread and in 1910 the Santa Fe Railway sent Nampeyo and her husband Lesso to Chicago to make pottery for the Exposition. By 1920 she was almost blind and her daughters and husband helped her paint. When she died in 1942 she left behind a fine lineage of potters, including her three daughters and several granddaughters.