Picuris Mountains, New Mexico
The Northern Rio Grande is home to the oldest micaceous clay tradition in North America. This tradition began at around AD 1300 and continues to the present.
Mining clay from high mountain deposits, potters created cook ware and serving vessels to feed their families. The tradition likely began with the Tewa Pueblos (Santa Clara, San Juan, Nambe, and Tesuque), but soon spread to Taos and Picuris. Around AD 1550, the mobile Jicarilla Apaches adopted the practice and taught Spanish settlers the craft.
In this way, mica pottery and the women who made it shaped the frontier economies of the Northern Rio Grande, like their descendents shape the art market economy of the American Southwest today.
Micaceous clay occurs in the Sangre de Cristos and San Juan Mountains where it is dug from eroding sheet deposits of mica. These deposits are located on public and private lands where development and mining threaten to destroy the remaining sources. Potters take only what is needed, believing that the clay represents the body of mother earth who gives to the people to perpetuate the cycle of life.
The Apaches were major producers during the historic era. Spanish colonization resulted in a reduction of mobility and loss of land among the Pueblos, but Apache women retained access to their sacred clays through mobility and with the aid of the horse.
By the end of the 19th-century, they supplied thousands of households with cookware through complex barter and exchange networks with other women.
Unnamed Santa Clara Potter. Library of Congress photograph, ca. 1927
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A Jicarilla Apache hearth with mica vessels. Photograph by Pliny Goddard, Dulce Reservation 1911
Virginia Romero. Taos Pueblo Potter, ca. 1918.
Photograph by Elsie Clews Parsons