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October 14, 2015

The Indian Arts and Crafts Board: Catawba Pottery

259216 Catawba

259217 Catawba
Upper: Sara Ayers (Catawba, 1919–2002), vessel. 1962, Rock Hill, York County, South Carolina. Pottery, 22.5 x 14.3 x 13.2 cm. Donated to the Indian Arts and Crafts Board by the artist in 1962. Indian Arts and Crafts Board Collection, Department of the Interior, at the National Museum of the American Indian, Smithsonian Institution. NMAI 25/9216. 
Lower: Nola Campbell (Catawba, 1918–2009), bowl with human effigy finials, 1960–62. Pottery, 33.5 x 13 x 10 cm. Donated to the Indian Arts and Crafts Board by the artist in 1962. Indian Arts and Crafts Board Collection, Department of the Interior, at the National Museum of the American Indian, Smithsonian Institution. NMAI 25/9217. 


These ceramic bowls came into the Indian Arts and Crafts Board (IACB) Headquarters Collection from the artists directly. In 1962, Robert G. Hart, then general manager of the IACB, inquired about arts and crafts production among the Catawba of South Carolina. Word reached Gladys G. Thomas (1921–72), president of the Catawba Relief Society, who told fellow Catawba potters about the inquiry. Master potters Sara Ayers (1919–2002) and Nola Campbell (1918–2009) made gifts of these bowls to the IACB for exhibition purposes. The South Carolina General Assembly recognized Ayers and Campbell with its Folk Heritage Award, and their works are sought after by collectors today.

Catawba potters gather clay from the banks of the nearby Catawba River. These works are not wheel thrown; Ayers and Campbell used the traditional coiling method, building the walls of the vessel by wrapping “ropes” of clay on a base, then smoothing the walls by hand and with tools of shell, wood, or other materials. Before firing, the ceramics are burnished or rubbed with a river stone that adds a reflective sheen. The pieces are fired in an open pit, and the fire creates dark patterns and marks on the exterior. According the potter Louise Bryson, “when we burn them, we don’t know what color they’ll burn out. I like mine black. Some like reds and some whites.”[1] The “Indian head,” seen here, is a popular design, along with double-spouted wedding vases, three-legged pots, and snake pots. Handles and “heads” are not merely attached to the outside of a Catawba the ceramic. Holes are bored into the vessel's wall, and the appendages are inserted through them.[2]

The Catawba Indian Nation is the only federally recognized tribe in South Carolina. The Catawba are located in York County, in the north-central part of the state, and the current enrollment is more than 2,800 members. 

It is important to note that during the time of this interaction between the tribe and the IACB, the Catawba had been “terminated,” a U.S. federal policy realized through House Concurrent Resolution 108 (HCR 108), passed in 1953, subsequently terminating 109 tribes from federal recognition as sovereign dependent nations and eliminating at least 1.3 million acres of land from tribal ownership. The implications of HCR 108 for terminated tribes included ending federal responsibility, protection, and aid; withdrawing government services; closing certain Bureau of Indian Affairs schools and health clinics; abolishing tribal rolls; and dissolving reservations. The Catawba Indian tribe of South Carolina was terminated under federal law in 1959.

The Catawba petitioned the federal government for reinstatement in 1973. In 1980, the tribe filed suit in federal court to regain possession of its treaty lands. The U.S. government ruled that the 1840 Treaty of Nations Ford was invalid because it was negotiated with the state of South Carolina and not the federal government. After twenty years, the Catawba Indian Nation received federal recognition in 1993.

The IACB Headquarters Collection contains 17 Catawba artworks, all ceramic pieces—bowls, pipe bowls, figurines, etc. Thirteen works are by Sara Ayers and two by Nola Campbell; two are by unknown artists. Ayers developed and maintained a relationship with the IACB; she donated to the collection two more times. In 1973, she gifted a six-stemmed pipe bowl during a visit to Washington, D.C. Two years later, Ayers gifted a tripod vessel with “Indian head” handles. Robert Hall thanked her for the 1975 donation in a letter and remarked that, “I feel that [this work] is an especially fine piece, and we are delighted to have it so that many people over the years will have an opportunity to gain enjoyment and inspiration from it.”[3] The IACB purchased the remaining nine pieces from the U.S. Department of the Interior’s Indian Craft Shop in Washington, D.C.

—Anya Montiel


Anya Montiel (Tohono O'odham/Mexican) is a PhD candidate at Yale University and a curatorial research fellow at the National Museum of the American Indian. This post is part of a series Anya is writing on the Indian Arts and Crafts Board Collection at the museum.


[1] Thomas John Blumer and William L. Harris, Catawba Indian Pottery: The Survival of a Folk Tradition (Tuscaloosa AL: University of Alabama Press, 2004), 58.

[2] Blumer and Harris, 131. 

[3] Robert G. Hart, IACB general manager, to Sara Ayers, 29 July 1975, letter, IACB accession file for NMAI 25/9772, National Museum of the American Indian, Washington DC.

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