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Catawba potter's traditional work in high demand

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ROCK HILL, S.C. - Evelyn George is getting up in years now. She has stopped making big pots because she cannot polish them like she used to, but the small pots and images that she creates get sold in no time.

"I make mine," she said. "I can't keep it. I usually make it and take it over to the cultural building. They have it over there, but they can't keep it either. People come looking for Evelyn's pottery."

George, an 89-year-old Catawba Indian elder, has been putting her hands in clay for nearly 80 years. "I started playing in the clay when my grandmother was living," she said. "I learned to make pottery from my grandmother, my mother, my aunts, just playing in the clay when they would sit down to work."

George has lived all of her life on the Catawba Indian Reservation near where she was born. The house she was born in still stands next to her current home.

"That's where my mother lived and different members of my family lived. It's a do-it house, built with good lumber years ago," she explained. The house is now used mainly for storage.

As a girl, she played with other children in the area and went to a school within walking distance. "I can remember the little old school house way over there on the hill. We had to get out and walk over there," she said, noticing the reservation rolling hills with tall pine trees.

"I didn't get no schooling except up to seven grade," she said. "Because back then they didn't let us go outside of the reservation and go to the white schools. We had to go down here. The grades just went to seventh grade. That's the only education I got."

As a child she liked to play in the clay by sticking her hands into a batch when her grandmother or mother sat down to make pottery.

"The children wanted to play in the clay, but they didn't like for us to play," she said. "It was too hard to get. They had go and dig their own clay back then."

Catawba potters still go to the same spot where her grandmother and mother dug for clay decades ago along the Catawba River. "It's on this man's lot over there," George said.

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By special permission, the landowner allows Catawba potters to dig for clay there. Catawbas have to cross the river to get to the spot. "It's in the pasture. He has cows and animals down there," George said.

Once she liked making big pots by rolling up several pieces of clay and laying them top of one another until she formed a pot. "If you don't make big pieces, you don't have to roll them," she said. For the small pots that she now makes, she just gets a handful of clay and starts to form a shape.

"I just make me a big old wad of clay and work it up. I just stick my fingers down in it there, work around it. We don't use wheels. We've never used the wheel."

After a pot is made, she heats them and puts them in a fire to burn. "You gotta do all that before you put them in the fire to burn. You gotta heat them up before you put them into a bed of coals."

She said that she heats up her pottery in the kitchen oven before taking them out to the fire. The bed of coals has to be very hot so she uses hickory wood. Once the pottery is on the hot coals, she puts wood on top to burn. "We never use pine wood. We use oak wood to burn them," she said.

"You never know what colors they are going to come out. Maybe they will be red and black spotted. It's all in the clay and the wood that you burn them with. It's an all-day job."

Once the pottery is completed, they become home display pieces or they will be sold. "Years ago, when my grandmother was living, they used to take it out and sell it. They would go to towns, Rock Hill, Fort Mill, or wherever.

"My grandmother then used to go to Rock Hill, and go from house to house and sell hers."

George recently held a pottery making class for the Catawba seniors. She has held several other classes for the tribe's youth. She is also a dancer, planning to dance in the annual Catawba festival this year.

Today, her three daughters, who all learned from her, continue the tradition, she explained. George also has five sons.

Catawba pottery can be traced back to the 1600s. A candidate for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy, David G. Moore of the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, studied ancient Indian mounds up the Catawba River in North Carolina and found pot shards he believed to be made by Catawba ancestors.