Apache Indian Pottery
The Apaches are members of the Athapascan family of Native Americans, which is said to
have had its origin in Alaska and Northwestern Canada.
Being late arrivals to the Southwest, the Apache Tribes are considered to be the most
widely distributed of all the Northern American linguistic families, at one time extending
from the Arctic regions to deep into Mexico.
They did not settle down to become primarily herders and farmers as other pueblo
peoples did. Because they were migratory and could not transport large amounts of
household items, their artworks mainly consisted of useful pots, water jars, and war
Apache Pottery Making
Of the Athabaskan tribes, only the Southern Athabaskans or Apacheans engaged in the
production of ceramics. Pottery types attributed to Apachean tribes have been
described archaeologically from areas extending from Nebraska to Arizona.
All historical evidence points toward a late origin of the craft among the Apache Indian
tribes, to its relatively short duration among many of them, and to a general lack of
importance and elaboration.
The Apachean utility types share a number of characteristics. The early types generally
showed a preference for moderately large jar forms, usually a dark gray color but with
considerable variation, thin walls, and limited decorative treatment. Texturing of
vessel surfaces, especially on the exteriors, was not uncommon. Use of mica, either
from a micaceous clay source, by addition of mica as tempering material, or by
application of a mica slip, also had wide distribution. The tribes that continued the craft
longest seem generally to have tended to produce smaller vessels with thicker walls as
time went by.
Five major groups have received detailed descriptions in the archaeological literature.
Although different tribes are involved, it seems best to consider the entire range of
utility types as comprising one ware for which the name Apachean Gray Ware is
Origins of Apache Pottery Making
Many scholars believe that the Apache learned
pottery making from the Anasazi influenced
Support for this idea comes from the fact that
Apachean ceramic complexes share a number
of traits with those of the Pueblo peoples of the 16th and 17th centuries. These include
coiled and scraped construction, poorly controlled firing atmosphere, dark gray as the
usual color but with considerable variability, sand and mica used as temper, some types
with micaceous clay or micaceous wash, striated or scored surfaces which are usually
more pronounced on vessel exteriors, squared lips on some vessels, and occasional,
incised or impressed decorative treatment. This complex of traits is strongest among
the more northerly Tanoan-speaking Pueblos, including the Tewa, and Northern Tiwa.
The Apachean ceramic complex appears to have developed very late, long after the first
Athabaskans drifted into the Southwest. Adaptive values may be easily attributed to
many of the changes that took place, some of a very practical nature and others
associated with symbolic interpretations that helped reinforce tribal beliefs and thus
provide the internal moral support that any culture needs to perpetuate itself.
Ceramic traits for all Native American tribes appears to have been very sensitive to
changing conditions, whether economic adaptations, ideological needs, or external
The pottery making in the Apache people played a minor role in their lifestyle, being
secondary to such activities as hunting, farming, performance of religious ritual, and
similar basic aspects of their way of life.
Only during the periods when Puebloan influence was unusually strong among the Apaches
did the utilization of ceramic products reach proportions that compare well in scale with
other Southwestern cultures.
The actual movement of peoples across cultural boundaries seems to have been
necessary for the diffusion of pottery making to Apaches, although once well
established, it diffused easily from one tribe to another and single traits, such as
decorative elements, moved from non-Athabaskan to Athabaskan groups readily.
Extremely rare painted shards excavated from the Apache plains groups suggest that
an individual potter might experiment with a foreign technique but that it would not
spread to become an established part of the tribal cultural inventory without some
reason beyond mere interest in its novelty.
While the mobility and means of transportation of the Plains Apaches, based on their
high degree of specialization in hunting, may be adequate to account for pottery making
to become ingrained into the tribe, but once they began to enjoy the benefits and
beauty of pottery, the Apaches developed beautiful southwest Peubloan style and
design which continues today.