White Swann

White Swann and her children

I’m Lisa Falk, director of education at the Arizona State Museum, a part of the University of Arizona in Tucson, Arizona. This podcast includes two interviews conducted during the 2007 Southwest Indian Art Fair at the State Museum. The first is with White Swann, an award-winning Hopi potter from Keams Canyon, Arizona. After speaking with White Swann, I interviewed three of her children who are also award-winning potters.

Hello White Swann. How are you?

Hi. I’m good. Thank you.

Can you yell me how old were you when you learned to make pottery, when you started making it?

I was very young. But I think I probably started my first piece when I was six years old.

And who did you learn from?

I learned from my grandmother, Bolienye. She was losing her eyesight at the time and I used to love to sit with her and listen to her stories.

Did you do this at her house? Where were you learning it?

Yes, it was at our old home down in Snowbird Canyon.

How did she start to teach you? What were the first things that you did?

Just allowing me to play with the clay and taking me with her when we would go to gather the clay. Those were some of the first steps. Then getting my hands in there with the water and smashing up the lumps and stuff. That kind of got me going.

Where did you go to gather clay? What does gathering the clay mean?

It was walking to—well, we go scouting. We went scouting—looking for different clay pits near home. We found different colors. We found a pit that had the yellow clay, which turns red when it’s fired. Then the grey turns like a beige color when it is fired.

What do you have to do? You dig it out of the ground and then what do you to make it into clay that you can use for a pot?

We dig it out using a pick and then putting it into a container or just wrapping it into a, making a bundle carrying it on our backs to home. From there, we let it dry out and then pound it into smaller pieces and soak it in water.

As a little kid did you actually help or were you sometimes a hindrance?

I like to think of myself as a big help. Because I go and sit and it was fun getting your hands in the mud and smashing up the lumps and stuff, which was a lot of help because now when I do mine it is time consuming.

What are some of the first things you made?

I think I made bowls. A lot of it was, you know, starting from a ball and smashing it on my elbows and knees. I believe I made figurines. I remember owls were my favorite at one time. Ladles, I did a lot of ladles. The bowls were a little difficult because I had to add coils, but I learned that later on.

So you continue to learn with your grandmother or with other people?

I continued to learn with my grandmother and then when we moved from that house--my mother built us a house closer to highway 264.  So I started first grade from there and I think that’s when my mother kind of picked up as my grandmother started to get older and her eyesight was rapidly deteriorating, so my Mom kind of took over from there.

So your mother made pots too?

Yes she did.

And what’s your mother’s name?

My mother’s name is Fawn.

How old were you when you started making pots that other people desired to buy?

I’d like to think that they desired them when I was just barely started out. I think that started probably as I became a teenager.

And you’ve been doing them ever since?

I have been.

You’ve won a lot of awards for your pottery.

I have. Pottery was always something I love to do. It is my form of therapy. Messing with the clay and forming these pots. I’m in my own little world.

What do you think about when you are making the pots?

I think about my ancestors. The thoughts they had, the songs they used to sing, the purpose of the pottery. I know at one time they used to tell that when you are building your pot it is like forming a child. You know you treasure the stuff that goes into it. That comes from your heart, your spirit. Everything goes into that pot.

Now you have four children of your own. Are you passing on the tradition?

I am. I am very proud of my children. My oldest, White Bear, has won many awards. When he was just a teenager his first show that he went to with me was here to the Arizona State Museum. He got three ribbons and I didn’t even place. So right then and there I knew that I had to stay on top. It was very exciting and I was very pleased. My children are my students. I encourage them daily to keep this tradition going.

Do you all work with clay daily?

Not daily because they are very athletic and White Bear was into a lot of running. The short times that he had to do pottery in a day he would do as much as he possibly could. And now that he is in school [college] that takes a lot of his time from shaping the pottery. He doesn’t have as much time to work with the clay.

Does he continue to work with it?

Yes, he does.

Do you make a living from your pots? Or do you have another job as well?

Yes. At one time I was working down at the Jeddito Public School. I don’t know, it got boring or something so I just I decided I’m going to go pottery fulltime. So I hit up every show I could within that one year to kind of weed out the good and bad—which ones were successful for me. I think I kind of liked that. In the winter time the sales kind of slow down and what not so I took on a part-time job. I work part time at a gallery, an art gallery, in Keams Canyon, the Magee’s Indian Art Gallery. I really enjoy my job there, getting to meet all the people; sharing the designs, the meanings of these designs and the spirit that is put into the pottery. You can feel it when you walk in the gallery and I am surrounded by all of this. I enjoy it, I do.

What do you think your children feel about making pottery?

I think they really enjoy something that has been passed down. I often ask them. I think it is something that they appreciate that was passed down from their ancestors. And some of the heirlooms that we have, like our polishing stones and stuff. They treasure those things. And they’re packed away when we are not going to work on our art. Its put away safely, so, you know, they don’t get legs.

I notice that your daughters won ribbons this year.

Yes, they did. It was very exciting. My youngest daughter, Ayu Aya, she got a ribbon on her fish bowl. I thought that was quite different. You know I’ve never seen anything like that. And Snow, she didn’t save any ribbons for us, which was very exciting. She’s one that I think will continue to pot even though she is going to school [college for Criminal Justice]. She’s one that I see that will keep the tradition.

Thank you so much for speaking with me. Is there anything else you might want to tell me about the meaning of pottery to you?

Well, going into the vaults here in the museum… Like I said, the spirit in the pottery is something that motivates you to want to go home—I have their blessings with me that I can go home and try something new and have their blessings for designing and what not.

Okay, well thank you so much. I appreciate you talking with me.

I’m Chantell Joe and I’m in 12th grade.

And how old are you?

I’m 17 years old.

Hi. My name is Marlena Joe. I’m 18 years old.

And you go by Snow?

I go by Snow.

Okay, and what grade are you?

I’m a freshman in college

And you’re studying?

For Criminal Justice.

Hi my name is Sheri Joe. I’m 13.

What grade are you in?

Eighth grade.

Can you guys tell me how you learned to make pots? How old you were and how you learned?

Chantell: We were like, started at 5.

Did you go to school for this?

No, our Mom taught us when we were growing up, encouraged us to make pottery.

Did you help collect the clay?

Yes. We collected the clay. We had to dig it up ourselves, strain it and everything.

Snow, do you remember the first pot you made? What it was?

Snow: The first pot I made was a turtle, a tiny crooked turtle.

And what about you other two?

Chantell: I learned when I was in kindergarten. My first pot was a bowl. I made it with my elbows and knees.

And you, Sheri?

Sheri/Ayu Aya: My first pot was a tile. It came out kind of nice. I was eight years old.

Did all three of you win ribbons today at the Fair or just two of you.

Just two.

Sheri, tell me about the piece that won a ribbon today. What is it?

Sheri/Ayu Aya:  It’s a fish. Like a fish bowl.

How did it feel winning the ribbon?

Kind of excited, nervous though.

Do you think you will keep making pottery?

Sheri/Ayu Aya: Yes.

Snow, what about you? You won a couple of ribbons at the Fair this year? What did you win them for?

Snow:  I won my first ribbon for a maiden tile, the other one was a water maiden bowl, and the third one was my turtle—it’s a shard, a shard turtle.

How did it make you feel?

It made me feel very excited.

Have you won ribbons before?

Yeah. Every ribbon is more and more exciting.

That’s great. Do you think you will continue with your pottery as you grow older?


When you make pottery what are you thinking about when you’re working on them?

Well, what we used to do when we were small, how we used to make it. My Mom always tells us stories when we do pottery, what she used to do when she was younger.

So while you’re working on it that’s what you’re thinking about?


And what about you, what do you think about when you are making pottery?

Chantell: Basically the same thing, just the memories that my Mom brings up.

Do you think you’ll continue making pottery an you grow older?


And what about you Sheri, do you think you’ll continue with it?

Sheri/Ayu Aya: Yeah.

Do you think you’ll want to teach your children?