Celebrate Cherokee Pottery at the Didanisisgi Pottery Festival | Cherokee, NC

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Celebrate Cherokee Pottery at the Didanisisgi Pottery Festival

(Images of Cherokee potter Mary Thompson’s work via Authentically Cherokee)

With the longest continuing pottery tradition of any tribe in the country, the Eastern Band of Cherokee holds over 3,000 years of history hand-crafting pottery from their land. In that time, many different styles, shapes, tools and techniques have emerged from artist to artist and region to region. Over the years, there have been numerous workshops, festivals, and grants with local and regional nonprofit support for artists working in the craft. Several of these artists are coming together April 16th, 2016 here in Cherokee, NC, to both share their techniques and show their work for the first Didanisisgi Pottery Festival.

"Didanisisgi" is the Cherokee word for mud dauber, a type of wasp that builds its nest from mud. According to Cherokee legend, the mud dauber taught the Cherokee how to make pottery. As the legend goes, a kindhearted girl was carrying a bark bucket to fill with water at the spring when she noticed a mud dauber struggling to get out, its wings wet and stuck in the mud. The little girl was scared of being stung but used a stick to help the little dauber get out safely.

As she continued on with her water, she tripped and out flew the bucket, which took her so long to make, and it smashed into many pieces on the ground. She heard the buzzing of the mud dauber she helped nearby, who then stopped to help her. He said, “Don’t feel so badly. I will teach you something useful. I will teach you to make pottery so you can teach your people.” He then went on to take pieces of clay from the bank until he had enough to make a small pot. He molded and shaped the clay and taught the girl how to make, stamp, and fire pottery so it could hold water. The girl rushed home to teach her people, and according to the legend, the Cherokee have been making pottery ever since.

Revitalizing Traditional Cherokee Pottery

(Image of Cherokee potter Mary Thompson’s work via Authentically Cherokee)

In 2002 there was a revival in the more traditional style of Cherokee pottery, and The Museum of the Cherokee Indian helped bring resources and information to the area to instruct local potters.  

“There were so many changes in styles of Cherokee pottery over the years, but in the 20th century a lot of potters were making pots in a style that tourists preferred, which were shiny and black on the outside and mostly decorative. A number of potters were interested in getting back to this much older Cherokee style using wooden paddles with stamped designs on top,” says Education Director and Grant Writer for the Museum of the Cherokee Indian, Barbara Duncan.

(Image via Guide to Native American Pottery of South Carolina)

“So we started with a small grant from the North Carolina Arts Council and have had help over the years from the Cherokee Preservation Foundation and the Museum of the Cherokee Indian. Over the course of about 5 years we were able to do research and bring in experts and hold workshops, and help the potters here in the Eastern band-- about a dozen at first, which then spread to help bring back this older style of pottery.” This led to the creation of the Cherokee Potters Guild, a group of local potters who learned that traditional style and incorporated it and went on to teach and demonstrate at regional universities, festivals and events.  

What to Expect at the Didanisisgi Pottery Festival

While the Potters Guild is no longer active, most of those artists have gone on to be very successful in their craft and several will also be joining the Didanisisgi Pottery Festival April 16th.

“One of the projects we’re working on at Sequoyah Fund, a local lender in the area, is building a brand for artists including potters, through a new program called Authentically Cherokee. The program (Authentically Cherokee) actually started with an artist, Tara McCoy, who came to me and asked if Sequoyah Fund could help her hold a festival for potters,” said Pottery Festival coordinator and Associate Director at the Sequoyah Fund, Hope Huskey.

Image via WCU LibraryThe festival is really meant to provide a way not only for these talented Cherokee potters to showcase their work to the public but to continue sharing education around traditional Cherokee pottery. Made by hand and typically smoked in a fire built into the ground, the traditional style of pottery is unique and is given different names by archeologists through its different phases found in various Appalachian regions over the years.

(Photo above from Western Carolina University Digital Collection)

“The Qualla style goes back to 1300 A.D. Before that there were Pisgah and Conestee styles, and the earliest, which is called Swannanoa, goes back to 900 B.C. This is all right here from the southern Appalachians, which is why archeologists name them after the place they were first found,” shares Duncan.

At the festival, attendees will be able to learn directly from the artists in roundtable discussions at the top of each hour at 1 pm, 2 pm, and 3 pm. A potter will share their distinct style and technique as well as the tools they use and how they apply different traditional styles, for around 30 minutes. They’ll also have their tables set up to share and demonstrate outside of the roundtable discussions throughout the day. The event is free and open to the public and NAIWA, a Cherokee women’s group, will have traditional food available for purchase.

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