Arts of the Southwest

On display until August 19

Prehistoric Southwest

Most archaeologists agree that the Southwest area of North America was settled between 12,000 and 20,000 years ago. During this time, the climate was much less severe. Lush grasslands dominated the area and supported large populations of mammoth, camels, and even sloths. Stone tools from this time suggest that the area’s inhabitants hunted many of the animals for food.

The area was much more familiar by 6,000 B.C. Deserts took the place of wetlands. Deer, antelopes, and rabbits replaced larger game. As a result, the area’s inhabitants began to supplement their diet with plants. However, they continued to retain their hunter-gatherer lifestyle for several millennia. It wasn’t until the arrival of maize and squash from Mexico after 1,000 B.C. that they began to settle down and farm.

Over time, the adaptation of agriculture led to a more sedentary lifestyle. At least four distinct cultures developed during this time: the Anasazi, Mogollon, Hohokam, and Hakataya. Other groups—like the Sinagua, Salado, and Casas Grandes—were formed by the migration and mixing of these groups. Over time, each group developed their own ceramic tradition. Like maize and squash, early pottery techniques were imported from Mexico. However, these traditions soon took on a life of their own and became distinct from their Mexican counterparts.

These first pots were relatively simple and utilitarian. Eventually, potters started to decorate their wares with small, incised designs. Those incisions led to visible coils, which were indented or pinched to create an overall corrugated design. Later artists began to experiment with painted designs. At first this consisted of simple black lines painted on gray pottery. Over time, potters began to create red, black, and white pots, which led to the polychrome design that was dominant throughout the latter years of the prehistoric Southwest.

Cultural Upheaval

Around A.D. 1150 many prehistoric groups began to disappear. There are two competing theories about their disappearance. Some speculate that severe periods of drought destroyed the area’s sensitive agricultural economy. Others believe that war may have played a role—especially among the Anasazi. Whatever the case may be, it led to the loss of several ceramic traditions.

Some of those groups would go on to form many of the tribes living in the area today. The Anasazi settled along the upper Rio Grande, forming many of the Pueblos there today. The Mogollon culture completely disappeared. Many believe they moved into the Tanoan-speaking pueblos along the Rio Grande and among the Zuni. The Hohokam are represented by the Pima and Tohono O’Odham (Papago). Likewise, the descendants of the Hakataya can be found in the tribes of Southeastern California and western Arizona.

Written records of the Southwest begin with the arrival of the Spanish in 1540. During this time, the Spanish identified three general groups of natives, based on their lifestyles. The Pueblos lived in compact settlements, while the Rancheria lived in scattered farmsteads along rivers and canals. There was also the Apaches: Those who did not farm but led a semi-nomadic existence that included raiding and stealing from their more settled neighbors.

Southwest Ceramics 

The surviving pottery traditions were kept more or less intact until railroads were built through the region in the 1800s. After that, potters began to make their pots smaller and smaller in order accommodate a growing tourist market. Artists started to produce fewer pots domestic use. They also started to move away from using traditional, geometric designs. Instead, they used naturalistic elements like birds or floral patterns. However, by the early 20th century, collectors were interested in older, more traditional pieces. During this time, native artists Juan Quezada and Nampeyo also began reviving long-dead styles of pottery. As a result, today, the area is home to a mix of traditional and contemporary ceramists. However, most ceramics are produced for for sale, not domestic use.

The Museum of the Red River has an extensive collection of prehistoric, historic and contemporary materials, including one of North America’s best collections of Southwest ceramics. Its collection of Southwest material also includes baskets, prints, jewelry, katsinas and more. Over 75 pieces from 15 different groups are represented in this exhibit. Arts of the American Southwest will remain on display until August 19. It will be replaced with “Andean Textiles” on August 28.

[Pictured: Polychrome Jars (2), ca. 1960 by Lucy M. Lewis (1898 – 1992). Acoma Pueblo (New Mexico). Gift of Alice Dockstader in Memory of her Husband, Frederick J. Dockstader.]