For as far back as 2,000 BC, mothers in the Catawba Indian tribe have been using special techniques to craft unique pieces of hand-made pottery, passing down its traditional methods from generation to generation.
The tradition nearly died out a century ago, when the tribe’s population fell to just over 100 people. But over the last several decades, the Catawba people have reestablished themselves on a reservation near Rock Hill, South Carolina, right off the Catawba river, and that’s led to a revival of the tribe’s pottery-making.
About a dozen master potters continue the Catawba’s ancient pottery techniques in present day, and one of them is the soft-spoken Catawba woman named Caroleen Sanders, who lives and works part-time on the reservation.
One a recent, soggy Monday morning, I met Caroleen at the reservation, where she brought me to the edge of a narrow footpath that appeared to wind down through a shady, woody area. Despite Caroleen’s clean, white sneakers, and my brown dress shoes, we pressed into the forest, hiking down the muddy path, as Caroleen pointed out local wildlife and forest foliage.
After 20 minutes or so, we reach an open clearing, where Caroleen focuses my attention on the horizon.
“Look at that river,” she says.
Sure enough, there, before us, rushes the Catawba River, all muddy and bloated from the rain. This, Caroleen says, is where all Catawba pottery has originated for thousands of years. Every piece, whether it’s a pipe, or a bowl, or a wedding pitcher, is made from clay harvested from the banks of this river.
The Catawba’s have been digging clay from one specific spot along the river - what’s called a clay-hole - for the past 600 years. That exact spot is a tribe secret, but Caroleen says it’s nearby.
“You’d have to take a canoe or a boat and go down - continue on down the river quite a distance,” she says.
That’s the first step in crafting Catawba Indian pottery the traditional way. Once Caroleen collects her clay, she’ll haul it a few miles up the road to her small house on the reservation.
It’s there that she’ll start to work the clay to a malleable consistency, and then coil it into the shape of a pot. Unlike the European technique, Catawba’s don’t use a pottery wheel - they form all their pottery by hand through a method called coiling.
Caroleen learned the technique as a kid, watching her mother bent over the kitchen table, with a small tin can full of pottery tools beside her. Whenever her mother finished a piece, Caroleen and her siblings would sell it out by the road.
“I remember sitting at a little table with her pieces out there.” she says, “People would stop and look and buy. It sold for maybe 25 cents each. When she wasn’t selling, she was trading it for milk for us, for food, or trading it for clothes for us.”
Now, Caroleen is in her early-70s, and she works much the same way her mother did. She sits at small folding table in her tiny kitchen, coiling the clay into tall pitchers, then scraping the sides smooth with a stone or a shell.
“When I began to make pottery, it felt natural when I started doing it. Even though I had not done it,” she says, “It belonged in my hands, I can tell you. And I’m sorry it took me so long to realize that.
Caroleen didn’t start making pottery seriously until she was in her 50s, and it was around that time that her mother became bedridden, and her failing health prevented her from continuing to make pottery. Caroleen tended to her mother in those final years, until October of 1996, when Caroleen’s mother, Verdie Harris Sanders, died. But not before she passed on her small tin can full of pottery tools to Caroleen.
“It had all of her little tools in that can,” she says, “And she wanted me to have those, she knew what it meant.”
Today, Caroleen will break out her mother’s old burnishing stone to work on pieces that are special - so her mother can live on in the clay. And Caroleen likes to think that with every piece she crafts, she gives life to the potters who came before her.
“It’s who we are - the Catawba people,” she says, “When I make a piece, I think about my ancestors who made it, and it’s been passed along 4,000 years. I’m a link in time. I’m so grateful that whatever - however I got here, whatever brought me to this point, I think I’m supposed to do what I’m doing.”
In addition to selling her pieces to collectors around the country, Caroleen Sanders has put many of her pieces on display at the Native American Studies Center at the University of South Carolina, Lancaster, and at North Carolina Pottery Center in Seagrove.