New Mexico owes much to its first people, the Native Americans who today make up the 19 pueblos, the Navajo Nation, and the Jicarilla and Mescalero Apache tribes. Not least among their gifts is the art they create. New Mexico pottery, weaving, and jewelry are found in museums and private collections worldwide. Purchasing authentic, Native-made art is perhaps the best way to remember your visit to New Mexico, and at the same time support and encourage the cultures that make our state a place like no other. You’ll be benefiting generations of artists here, while passing a quality piece of art down through yours.
Acoma Pottery - Photo: Steve Larese
Pottery has been used since prehistoric times to carry water and as cookware. Beginning in the 1100s, pottery began to evolve into art and ceremonial items. Intricate designs were painted on pottery, and it was buried with the deceased. In Chaco Canyon, evidence shows that it was broken ceremoniously after a long trek for reasons unknown. Pottery is intricately tied to the survival and spirituality of New Mexico’s Pueblo people.
Pots begin with the potter digging clay at their favorite location, often kept secret and passed down through families. The clay is coiled, smoothed by a favorite river stone or gourd piece as the potter builds. The thickness of the pot’s wall must be kept just right, as does the pot’s balance. The clay must be free of any debris, cracks, or air bubbles, which will explode the pot when it is fired and destroy many hours of work.
There are several basic styles of pots. The dough bowl is a traditional, largemouth pot that was used for mixing and kneading bread; the seed pot is almost completely round and has a very small hole at the top, used to store and protect planting seeds from rodents; the popular wedding vase is very difficult to make and has two spouts connected with a handle, used to represent union of a bride and groom.
Once the shape is formed, the potter paints a slip and design with plant-based pigments or carefully carves designs. The bottom is signed. Around the mouth, a spirit line is often painted, never fully connecting to allow the pot’s spirit to enter and leave. The thin-clay slip is polished with a favorite stone, often one that has been passed down by an elder. The slip will change color depending on the temperature of the fire and the amount of oxygen the potter allows to reach the pot while firing.
For the firing, the pots are protected with metal scraps, and wood is stacked around them. Sometimes horse manure is used as fuel, especially when little oxygen is desired to create black pottery, such as the styles of Santa Clara and San Ildefonso pueblos. The potter carefully regulates the length and intensity of the fire, skills learned from grandmothers and experience. If all goes well, the pots are taken from the ashes and art is born.
The amount of skill, patience, talent, and time that go into a true piece of Pueblo pottery is reflected in the price of the pot. Some pots that are sold are formed in molds, and then painted by a skilled Pueblo artist. While these are still valid works of art, their price should be much less than a handmade pot. The dealer should state up front that they are not hand coiled. Always ask before purchasing to make sure you’re not paying too much. In a hand-coiled pot, often the uneven finger impressions of the artist can be seen along the inside wall.
Navajo Weaver Pearl Sunrise - Photo: Steve Larese
Weaving is primarily associated with the Navajo, or Dine. Once nomadic bands of people, the Dine were captured by the U.S. Army in 1864 and held in camps at Bosque Redondo in southern New Mexico before being allowed back to their traditional lands in the Four Corners. (The march to Bosque Redondo is called the Long Walk, during which many Dine perished.) They were given sheep in an effort to move the Dine from a subsistence and raiding way of life to one that was agriculturally based. The incredibly resilient Dine soon became master weavers. Their mythology says that Spider Woman taught them how to weave. After the last frost in the spring, Churro sheep are shorn, their wool cleaned, carded, spun, dyed, and painstakingly woven on wooden looms into almost-perfect pieces of art. Almost perfect — the Dine understand the concept of perfection in imperfection (similar to the Japanese philosophy of wabi sabi) and purposely weave in a tiny “mistake,” often only noticeable to the weaver.
Dealers of weavings in Gallup, Santa Fe, Albuquerque, Taos, and elsewhere often buy directly from the artists, and enjoy a special bond with the weavers. In some cases, weaving families and stores have established friendships that go back several generations. When purchasing from a store, staff will be more than happy to point out what makes a quality weaving and answer questions. They’ll also be able to tell you about the weaver, his or her style, and family history.
Native Jewelry in Gallup - Photo: Steve Larese
Beads, feathers, and shells from Central America have been found at Chaco Canyon and many other archaeological sites throughout New Mexico, attesting to the fact that jewelry has been prized here for many centuries. Turquoise was mined by Native Americans and traded for other goods throughout North America. Later, when the Spanish arrived with metal and silver coins, Native Americans quickly turned this new material into ornate pieces of art as well.
High-end Pueblo jewelry often features handmade turquoise and coral beads, and pendants inlaid with shells, called heishi. Santo Domingo Pueblo is especially known for their necklaces. Zuni Pueblo is famous for its fetishes — small animal figures of precious stone sometimes inlaid with other minerals or shells. These totems were traditionally carried to bring good fortune in hunting, and are sought-after by collectors today. Navajo artisans are known for their hammered silver jewelry, which they perfected in the 1800s during the Mexican and later American eras of New Mexico’s history. Coins were worked flat and adorned or incorporated into intricate jewelry pieces, and turquoise was set into bracelets and necklaces. Perhaps best known are the Navajo concho belt and squash-blossom necklace. Concho comes from the Spanish word for shell. The squash-blossom necklace is borrowed from the Spanish-Moorish design of the pomegranate blossoms, and the crescent-shape pendant often seen on Navajo necklaces comes from the Islamic symbol for the moon, Moorish in origin and brought to New Mexico by the Spanish.
When purchasing Native American jewelry, the seller should disclose if the stones are real turquoise or plastic resin, and the silver should have the artist’s stamp on the back. Buying directly from galleries and the Native American artists themselves is a safe and rewarding way to bring home a piece of New Mexico that will be in your family for generations.
For tips on how to purchase Native American art, visit