Subverting Appropriation: Pueblo Culture and the Pottery of Maria Martinez

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The pottery of Maria Martinez (1887-1980) marks the beginning of a renewed scholarly interest in indigenous southwestern pottery cultures (Peterson 95). Her groundbreaking rediscovery of an ancient technique to render red earthenware ceramic pieces into highly polished “black-on-black” ceramics gained her national and international attention in the 20th century (Peterson 70). During her life, Martinez earned dozens of awards and two honorary doctorates, and was recognized as one of “the best potters anywhere in the world” (Spivey, xv). Yet for all her commercial, artistic, and cultural success, Martinez maintained a “simple life” one rooted in her traditional identity as a Tewa-speaking woman of San Ildefonso, New Mexico.

Space does not permit a full investigation into her multifaceted life and work as a ceramicist. Instead, after a brief synopsis of the colonization imposed on Pueblo cultures, I analyze and contextualize two aspects of Martinez’s work. Viewed against a colonial backdrop, This paper argues that her decision to make pottery collaboratively and informally, and her integrative identity as an artist, subverted the assimilation and appropriation of Pueblo culture.

To understand Martinez’s profound commitment to a traditional lifestyle and her decision to live as a Pueblo woman it is necessary to examine the social context into which she was born. The colonization of Tewa-speaking peoples took place under the occupation of both the Spanish and American settlers. San Ildefonso—or Powhogue, in Tewa—was a flourishing community before Spanish occupation. Rich in cultural traditions, religious ceremonies, and agricultural production, the peoples who inhabited the eastern bank of the Rio Grande thrived in the area since 1300 (Spivey, 1). However, between 1598 and 1846, Spanish colonial occupation imposed religious and cultural oppression through warfare, disease, and dislocation (Spivey, 2).

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Further oppression occurred at the hands of Americans as colonizers pushed westward, with their ideologies and assimilation policies in tow. The impact of colonization included the loss of the Tewa language and traditional lifestyles, as well as a growing dependence on employment outside the local community (Raat 37; Peterson 82). Population collapse and the implementation of the United States government’s reserve system meant that traditional pueblo culture was severely threatened (Raat 36; Peterson 85).

In addition, there were more insidious forms of colonization through appropriation, which further threatened indigenous communities. Government assimilation policies, aimed at “civilizing” indigenous communities, moved westward with American settlers. These attitudes were often enforced in the classroom. For instance, colonial educators encouraged indigenous students to pursue their traditional arts, believing the activities could be used as a civilizing force to “[supply] Indians with a viable means of ‘bettering’ themselves” (Jacobs, 194).

In contrast to this was an equally problematic concern by ethnologists to preserve and revive “authentic” indigenous cultures and traditions. These concerns were often oversimplified and based on stereotypical understandings of indigenous ways of life (Jacobs 192). Through the 19th century these views manifested in the form of “human zoos” within larger World Fair exhibitions. Fair organizers hired Pueblo peoples as entertainers to perform their traditions and on artificially constructed sets modeled after a traditional Pueblo village. These roles confirmed and conformed to stereotypes of Indigenous peoples (Bokovoy 138).

One scholar suggests that the act of participating in such a fair requires a more nuanced reading: “As Indians assumed the roles of the primitive and the vanquished in the triumphant script of American progress, one must ask how Indians ‘creatively’ exploit[ed] the roles they were cast into to realize their intentions and express their reactions” (Bokovoy, 116). In any case, the Pueblo people were caught a difficult bind: on one hand, they had to fight to maintain their indigenous identity against assimilation, while on the other hand they had to fight nostalgic stereotypes and cultural appropriation.

Black-on-Black Olla with Avanyu Design
Signed “Maria/Popovi”
Dated July1963
Gift of Arthur and Lucy Kuriloff

It is into this context that Martinez’s pottery took shape. For present purposes, two aspects of her work stand out. First, Martinez did not teach pottery in a formal environment. Instead, she taught her whole village to make pottery (Spivey 35). Essentially, Martinez taught the art of pottery the same way she had learned it: by direct observation. In this way, Martinez not only facilitated a grassroots economic revival in San Ildefonso, but also placed the small reserve community onto the national and international art scenes.

Martinez’s creative process was also collaborative by nature. While she built the pots, others painted them (Spivey 20). Notably, her decision to make the pottery collaboratively with family in an informal environment conformed to the traditional gender roles of the Pueblo people, and stood in stark contrast to traditional European artistic methods. While other American and European artists might seek out formal art education and sign their own work as an individual artist, Martinez shared her skills and knowledge with everyone and signed the pots together with the painters. These simple acts effectively subverted Western notions of individual artistry, and replaced them with an indigenous understanding of communal creation.

Maria and Popovi Da Photo taken by Maurice Eloy Circa 1960 Gift of Anita Da and the estate of Popovi Da

A second important dimension of Martinez’s artistic production was the non-central role it occupied in her daily life. While Western artists often devote considerable amounts of time and energy to learning, refining, and expanding their artistic skillset, Martinez spent a relatively small amount of time making pottery (Peterson 80). Instead, she lived out her traditional values as a Tewa-speaking woman by participating in many cultural activities. Central to Martinez’s life, and to the community of San Ildefonso, were sacred ceremonies and dances. Martinez practiced these dances often, and was the drummer for many of them as well (Paterson 80; Spivey 3). Commitment to her community’s spiritual, economic, and social health took precedence over her artistic achievements.

Martinez’s commitment to art as a means of bringing health to her community is illustrated by a conversation recorded between her and her partner Julian in Alice Marriott’s narrative work on Martinez’s life. Martinez tells Julian that they will need to make some “new old bowls” for the white people who want to purchase them (Marriott 167). This simple exchange displays her subversive approach to pottery production. While capable of performing her identity as indigenous artist for white commercial expectations, she displays an ability to, as Marriott notes, “creatively exploit the roles they were cast into to realize their intentions a means to their own ends” rather than a commitment to art for art’s sake (Bokovoy, 116).

In short, Martinez was able to use the commercial interests of white tourists to achieve her own ends. This allowed her to make a home in San Ildefonso, and pursue interests that were of importance to herself and her community.

The pottery of Maria Martinez is a remarkable accomplishment on many levels.  Her pottery widened the boundaries of ceramic art and she developed new methods for firing.  Her teaching methods were participatory and open to all, and her art was fundamentally collaborative. Today, her pottery is recognized as some of the best in the world, and even during her lifetime she was honoured with many awards. When her work is situated within the legacy of Pueblo colonization, her genius is found not only within the pottery itself, but also in her ability to quietly subvert inherent cultural dynamics of power and appropriation at play during her lifetime.

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Works Cited

Bokovoy, Matthew. “Chapter 4: A Heritage in History Forever. The San Diego World’s Fairs and Southwestern Memory, 1880-1940, edited by _____, University of New Mexico, 2005, pp. 114-140.

Jacobs, Margaret D. “Shaping a New Way: White Women and the Movement to Promote Pueblo Indian Arts and Crafts, 1900-1935.” Journal of the Southwest, vol. 40, no. 1, 1998, pp. 187-215.

Marriott, Alice. Martinez: The Potter of San Ildefonso. University of Oklahoma, 1948.

Peterson, Susan. The Living Tradition of Mária Martínez. 1st paperback ed., Kodansha International, 1989.

Spivey, Richard L., Martínez, María Montoya, and Lotz, Herb. The Legacy of Martinez Poveka Martinez. Museum of New Mexico, 2003.

Raat, W. Dirk, and Michael M. Brescia. Mexico and the United States. University of Georgia, 2010.


  1. Great paper! Sarah was a contemporary of Martinez, and spent time in New Mexico around the 1930’s, during the Great Depression. You might remember seeing the pots that she and Millard collected (both San Ildefonso and Santa Clara pottery.) They prized it, at a time when most people were using Navajo blankets as car covers, to protect from the snow. And it obviously paid off for the tribe, and the collectors. I love the ironical tone she wrote about the ” new old bowls for white people”. I can’t help thinking of Nano, struggling to leave the ranch, in the early 1900’s, to become a gymnast. The year she finally made it to university, they shut down the women’s gymnastics program. The pueblo potters have, from earliest records, always had a spark of genius and encouraged individualism, known and prized by other tribes as well. That they flourished by basically reinventing their ancient techniques, but designing collaboratively to conquer a ” foreign” aggressor market during a national financial crisis, is an interesting twist on how one tribe flourished. I believe the Zuni and Navajo did something similar, to create ” white people” markets, collaborating to produce a product the whites would recognize as “authentic”. It wasn’t until the 70’s that honors and prizes were given once again for individual voices, who created “modern” works for sale, in traditional craft media, throughout the southwest tribes. But that, is another story. Nice paper, and an interesting window in time. ❤️ Love you, Mom

    Sent from my iPhone



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