PARKER, Ariz. – The old church on the Colorado River Indian Reservation shows the austere signs of its Presbyterian past.
Its faded walls are bare, its wooden floor dehydrated and creaky with only stacked up chairs and tables standing on it. It’s been a decade since parishioners gathered at the church not far from the banks of the Colorado River. But where the Presbyterian values once discouraged symbolism so as not to distract from the Christian faith, now animistic figurines and geometric motifs etched in rich dark colors pervade. Every other week or so, about 20 people flock to the church to revive not a congregation, but traditional pottery, which has not been communally practiced in at least a generation.
Mojave pottery is making a slow but steady comeback among the descendants of the river people who made the clay vessels to store food and water and trade with northern tribes. About 40 devotees at the Colorado River Indian and Fort Mojave reservations have been attending classes and molding the vessels out of natural materials collected from the Mojave Desert: clay, sand, and a touch of volcanic ash with iron oxide, manganese from rocks and mesquite sap for paint.
“What the people appreciate about it is that all the materials are part of the desert and everything is done in the old traditional way. It’s actually authentic and it’s actually Mojave pottery,” said Joe Scerato, the director of the Aha Macav Cultural Preservation on the Fort Mojave Reservation.
There is a sense at the reservations that something precious and intrinsic has been lost through time and neglect, giving way to non-Native culture and the hustle and bustle of tribal council business.
“We try to get younger people in here. Because the pottery is going dead,” said Neola Mosqueda, one of the students taking the pottery class.
“What the people appreciate about it is that all the materials are part of the desert and everything is done in the old traditional way. It’s actually authentic and it’s actually Mojave pottery.”
Pottery is not the only Mojave facet filling in the void. Traditional dancing and singing have also made strides, Scerato said.
The practice of making pottery, however, is still endearingly remembered by older reservation residents. In the past, traditionalists made the pots for daily use or to sell to tourists traveling on the railroad. But as plastics, glass and other ceramics were made available pot making declined. And when the railroad gave way to interstates and air travel, they disappeared. The only way to see a pot was at a museum or in a book.
“People did not have to go out and get the clay and fire the pots anymore and for that reason people quit making it,” said Ronald Moore, 71.
Sonia Stone wants to change that. She is part of a multigenerational family attending the classes at the Colorado River Indian Reservation that is particularly concerned about mastering the craft before she begins teaching it to others to extend Mojave pottery beyond her years.
“We probably haven’t had potting since going back to the 70s. It’s our way to get from the land and just take only what we need.”
Stone said just a handful of surviving elders that possess the knowledge of pot making are not interested in teaching it. So when the Mojave tribes learned of a young, non-Mojave, local ceramist who was making them, they jumped at the opportunity to bring him to the reservation.
Toney Soares, 39, had been quietly attaining knowledge of the intricate steps in Mojave pottery and locating clay sources throughout the desert. After seeing Soares’ pots at the nearby Agua Caliente Museum in Palm Springs, Calif., Scerato recognized them, inquired and brought Soares to the Fort Mojave Reservation where Soares has been teaching for about a year.
“So now we are getting it revived. And students think Tony is great. They ask for him,” Scerato said.
Soares now teaches at four reservations, including the Agua Caliente, Quechan and Pechanga.
Soares – a quiet, burly, local man of Cherokee ancestry – said he was first intrigued when watching his grandmother mold commercial clay into pots and hardening them in a charcoal fire.
“I got the feel of the clay at about five years old and went out to the river and made a beehive,” Soares said. He read up on Mojave pottery and postulated the origin of its natural clay.
“I had to find that clay,” he said. He teaches his students how to construct the pots from scratch, using only traditional ways. He hardens the pots in an open-air wood fire that is started with friction and tinder. He gives them directions to the good clay sources.
Just after dawn, an hour before his class began, he walked the mud cakes of a desert slope a few hundred yards from the Colorado River, searching for the telling signs of good clay: color and texture. Tribal members are authorized to take materials from the Mojave Desert which is mostly managed by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, Soares explained. When gathering the clay for his classes, he travels with tribal members.
For 26-year-old Susan Welsh, the clay served her well, molding it into a frog and marking it with geometric motifs she painted with a human-hair brush. The graduate school-bound Welsh said the ceramics classes were her gateway to her culture.
“What those that don’t want to come don’t know is that the elders come too. And for those who do come they tell stories, about how the pots were made and you get to learn more about your traditions.”