Pahponee| A Sacred Assignment


By Gussie Fauntleroy

To create her very first pot, Pahponee—who goes by her Kickapoo name, which means Snow Woman—used 20th-century ceramic techniques, wheel-forming the vessel and firing it in an electric kiln. For her second pot, she stepped back at least a hundred years. She asked her father and other relatives how pottery was made by their ancestors. Then she taught herself to work the clay as they did, coil-forming the pot and firing it outdoors in an open-pit fire using buffalo dung.

In both cases the artist was guided by prayerful intent and inner listening that told her what she should create and how her work could be a blessing to herself and others. Today, more than 25 years later, Pahponee (pronounced Pah-PO-nay) continues to use both ancient and modern-day pottery techniques, and her creations have earned numerous awards, including recognition from the Santa Fe Indian Market, the Heard Museum Guild Indian Fair & Market, and the Eiteljorg Museum’s Indian Market, among others. In the process she has learned first-hand that sacredness does not reside in any one method of working in clay. Instead, she believes, it is reflected in how she approaches her work—with mindfulness and a desire to allow the voice of the clay to speak through her, as it did through her ancestors long ago.

Pahponee’s early childhood was spent in the Midwest. Her heritage is primarily Kickapoo and Potawatomi. Although those tribes’ ancestral homeland is farther north, in the woodland areas surrounding Lake Michigan, the United States government relegated the two closely related tribes to reservations in Kansas when early settlers pushed west. Pahponee’s father’s extended family was actively involved in Native ceremonies, dance, and the traditional arts of beadwork, drum making, and silversmithing. Her grandparents created dance outfits, and her father’s family once performed for President Harry S. Truman.

Pahponee’s parents separated when she was an infant (they later reunited), and when she was 9, her mother—of Powhatan, Cherokee, and German descent—moved her children to the Olympic Peninsula of Washington state, two miles from the Pacific Ocean. People often ask the artist about the aquatic imagery on her pottery’s carved and incised surfaces, wondering how a heritage of landlocked tribes produced such designs. She responds by citing 13 years spent where she could smell the ocean every day. But she also explains that the word Kickapoo means “they move about.” She sees herself as heir to the legacy of a survivalist people who moved frequently and adapted to new circumstances, broadening and deepening their cultural traditions as they did.

“It doesn’t matter where I live, I’ve always felt that my indigenous roots are with me, whether I’m near or far from the reservation,” the 50-year-old artist asserts. She is sitting in the studio at her home in rural Colorado, southeast of Denver. The home’s ground level consists of a studio for herself and her husband, Greg Elston, also a ceramic artist. Upstairs is the living space, now quieter since their two sons have grown and moved out. The couple’s 40 acres are located on a high, wide-open plateau, and from their west windows they can see the entire Front Range of the Rocky Mountains.

Like her forebears, Pahponee has “moved about” considerably over the years—starting as a “high energy” child, as she puts it, who rarely sat still. She was voted most artistic in high school, taking whatever art classes were available. College was at Graceland University in southern Iowa, where liberal arts studies included drawing and painting. There she met her future husband, whose passion was ceramic art. “Greg had the ability to work large, and his big pots looked like canvases to me,” she recalls. “I asked him if I could decorate the surfaces of his pots. I began to carve on them to have them tell stories.”


After Pahponee and Greg were married, they moved to an Iowa farm that had been in his family and put all their energy into his pottery business. It was a labor-intensive time: living in an aging farmhouse with a hand-pump for water, a woodstove for heat, and a semi-renovated hog shed for a studio. Pahponee assisted her husband with his pottery, adding glazing, slips, and stains, while also raising buffalo, a garden, and two young sons.The couple traveled often to art shows around the county to sell Greg’s work. It was on one such trip, in the early 1980s, that Pahponee received what she believes was a sacred assignment to begin creating pots of her own.

The Plains tribes tell of a beautiful young woman who came to the people during a time of hunger and need. She brought them the sacred pipe and taught them how to pray, how to respect the women and children, how to value the buffalo, and how to live. When she left she transformed into a white buffalo, saying that when the White Buffalo returned to the land, it would signal a time of peace and oneness of spirit.

Familiar with the age-old story, Pahponee was surprised, thrilled, and honored when, during a stop in Oklahoma continued on page 138 Pahponee, continued from page 118

on the way home from an art show, she was invited to see a rare white buffalo mother and calf. The animals were on the ranch of a friend and medicine woman. As the hosts and visitors watched from a rise, the white buffalo and her calf, along with a brown buffalo mother and calf, separated themselves from the herd and approached. “I could have reached out and touched them,” Pahponee remembers. “I was so taken with their beauty, it was like the world fell away.”

All night long she dreamed about the white buffalo she had seen that day. In the morning when she and her hosts went to see themagain, the two mother buffalo and their calves were waiting. “They all turned sideways and paraded in front of us,” Pahponee recounts. “They stepped in unison, and when they stepped I heard a drumbeat, a slow beat, the honor beat. When the white mother buffalo stopped in front of me, she said to me, in my mind: In a sacred manner I walk. The final time she stopped in front of me, she said: Do likewise.” As soon as Pahponee was home, she began dreaming about a pure white pot with four buffalo carved on it, which would honor the White Buffalo. The vision stayed with her for a year and a half before finally, with encouragement and technical advice from her husband, she created it.

Not sure whether she should sell the pot, Pahponee turned for guidance to the spirit of the White Buffalo, a presence she continues to feel in her life. She came to understand that if she made and sold pots, they would bless the homes where they went. Years later, Pahponee expresses deep gratitude for those who purchase her art, allowing good fortune to flow both ways. “White Buffalo is an animal of blessing,” she explains. “That was my assignment from her. Even now, every design is inspired by something that has happened to me, by someone I know, or by animals that are important to me. That’s what I carve, sketch, and etch into my pieces.”

Wanting to reclaim the almost forgotten pottery tradition of her ancestors, Pahponee decided for her second pot to learn the old ways of working with clay. No one on the Kickapoo/Potawatomi reservations was doing it, so she gathered what information she could from relatives’ memories. Using red clay, which she sees as honoring the brown buffalo, she taught herself to coil-build vessels and fire them in the primitive outdoor method.

Today she works in both red and white clay, using carefully hand-blended mixtures. She employs old and new techniques, finding sacredness in both. The traditional method “engages me from the ground up, in all the elements,” she notes. “But if I buy clay from elsewhere in the world and if I choose to use a wheel and kiln-fire a pot, I’m still praying, and prayers are outside of time. An electric kiln is still fire, which comes from the earth. It’s just high-tech fire.”

A new series of Pahponee’s white pots is dedicated to the earth’s endangered species, with a percentage of the proceeds going to non-profit organizations working to help these animals survive. WAWATSO (a Kickapoo word meaning “large white animal from the north”) is a 23-inch-high, stone-polished vessel featuring 16 polar bears in different poses carved into the surface.

Among the artist’s primitive-fired, red-clay pieces are classic storage jars in a shape common to many indigenous cultures. Unlike Pueblo potters of the Southwest, who generally aim to avoid “fire clouds,” or dark areas and color variations on the pot’s surface that result from the firing process, Pahponee uses a northern Woodlands style in which the pot is intentionally exposed directly to the fire and buffalo dung. The result is a highly variegated surface with fire clouds that often resemble animals or other unplanned imagery. “Art is about telling stories,” she reflects. “I let the fire have its way, and then watch the story it will tell.”

Featured in August 2008