Author has life-long appreciation of American Indian pottery

Text: T T
By Warren Hughes


Tom Poland Tom Poland While looking for arrowheads in the fields of Georgia, Tom Poland and his dad stumbled upon a piece of Indian pottery that formed in Poland a life-long appreciation for the ancient art.

“Since I was a boy, I have been interested in our Indian heritage,” Poland said. “I avoid the politically correct ‘Native Americans,’ because it is sterile and manufactured. Not good writing material.

“My dad and I uncovered nearly a complete pot once, but a careless man dropped it and shattered it to smithereens. I still haven't gotten over that,” he recalls.

Since that long-ago day, he has studied and written extensively on Carolina Catawba pottery, including an appreciative and detailed piece in South Carolina Wildlife. “The editor felt I would do the story justice. I hope I did.” He did.

As he often does, Poland spoke recently on the subject, enthralling members of the USC Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution. The Columbia writer especially likes to focus on “the sacredness of the clay pits where the Catawba get the perfect clay for their pottery.


Catawba potter decorates a piece Catawba potter decorates a piece The holes along the Catawba River are secrets and very much protected. He also emphasizes “although Catawba pottery appears to be glazed, it is not. A method of rubbing the clay with polish stones gives it the appearance of having been glazed.”

Scholars say Catawba pottery is the oldest continuous pottery tradition in North America, dating back to as early as 2,400 BCE. It has remained unchanged since its origins.

Caroleen Sanders, whose work Poland particularly admires, is a master artisan of the ancient art. She grew up on the Catawba Indian Nation Reservation near Rock Hill, learning the pottery traditions from her mother, Verdie Harris Sanders, and later from master Catawba potters Nola Campbell and Earl Robbins. She is known for her skill in creating traditional pieces using traditional techniques and motifs and her willingness to experiment with new techniques, design themes and styles.

Unlike commercial potters who buy clean clay from suppliers, Catawba potters dig sacred clay just as ancient tribe members did. The best clay is six feet down. “Finding a good seam of clay provides a rush like finding a vein of gold,” says Sanders. The location of the clay holes are closely guarded secrets. “ They’re sacred to us,” says Sanders. Once they dig a goodly amount of clay, potters refill the hole and camouflage it with brush and straw so others can’t find it.

Her work is featured at USC Lancaster’s Native American Studies Center, which offers visitors the opportunity to view the single largest collection of Catawba Indian pottery in existence. The center also contains the Thomas John Blumer Collection on the Catawba Nation.

Poland has been writing about the disappearing rural South for nearly four decades. His latest book is Georgialina: A Southland as We Knew It. His ten previous books include Reflections of South Carolina and Reflections of South Carolina, Volume 2 ( both with photographer Robert C. Clark) and Classic Carolina Road Trips from Columbia: Historic Destinations and Natural Wonders. He lives in Columbia.

Upcoming local presentations by Poland include January 19, “Photo of the Week,” Shepherd’s Center, Ashland Methodist Church; February 23, Senate’s End, “My Southern Writing Career;” March 5, Author Meet & Greet, and March 6, Writers’ Workshop, both at Richland Library Ballentine in Irmo.

2016-01-15 / Business

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