Rebecca “Amanda” Wolf Youngbird (1890–1984), the daughter of a non-Indian woman and a Cherokee man, was named Rebecca for a grandmother who walked the Trail of Tears. As a girl, she attended boarding school in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. When Youngbird returned to Cherokee in her twenties, she began experimenting with clay. Because she did not come from a line of potters, Youngbird developed a distinct and experimental style. She knew and worked with Catawba potters who had settled in Cherokee, and met renowned Pueblo potter Maria Martinez during the Southeastern Fair in Atlanta in 1934. Youngbird is credited with reintroducing blackware to Cherokee pottery, and she helped popularize the double-spouted wedding vase design, a form later adopted by Catawba potters.
Rebecca “Amanda” Wolf Youngbird (1890–1984) was the daughter of a non-Indian woman and a Cherokee named Comeback Wolf, a man who acquired his name from the circumstances of his birth. According to Youngbird’s own story, her family was on its way west along the Trail of Tears, when they turned back at the Mississippi River. Her father was born on the return trip home, thus earning his colorful name. The potter’s given name was in homage to a grandmother who had made that trip, but close friends called her Amanda. Youngbird lived on the Qualla Boundary until she was thirteen, when she attended boarding school in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. Back home in Cherokee, while still in her twenties, Youngbird began experimenting with clay.
I first started with clay I found right here. … There was a streak of clay down by the branch on our property, and I got some clay there and practiced. Nobody taught me. I just did it myself.
Youngbird made her pottery using the coil method, moving upward from a clay base. In describing designs she added to her pottery, Youngbird explained how she tried new ideas. “I found some of those designs in a little book that somebody made who knew about those things.” She bought “a little wooden paddle and had somebody carve it for me” and then finished her pottery by paddling and incising. Youngbird also talked about experimenting with other tools.
I had lots of little tools. A friend of mine knew I wanted crooked knives and he made me three and it was sharp and wide and on a wooden handle, eight inches long. [It was] used to scrape inside.
Youngbird knew several Catawba potters who had settled and worked in Cherokee, including Nettie Harris Owl and, after Lillie Bryson moved to Cherokee in 1930, she became friends with her. Youngbird and Bryson gathered clay together and compared their work, sharing information and insights. Catawba scholar, Thomas Blumer wrote that, because of her upbringing outside of the usual familial tradition, Youngbird had to forge her own way: “Rebecca Youngbird had to resort to her own ingenuity since she did not rely on an ancient family tradition.” 1
Some of Youngbird’s inspiration may have come from unexpected sources. In 1934, Youngbird was invited to Atlanta to demonstrate at the Southeastern Fair. That year the fair, a typical harvest festival with the agricultural competitions, craftwork, industrial exhibits, and midway of rides, showcased the cultures of twelve tribes. 2 Maria Martinez, a craft maker of national reputation, represented the pottery traditions of San Ildefonso, a Pueblo village near Santa Fe, New Mexico. Martinez was credited with revitalizing black-on-black Pueblo pottery, and in Atlanta, Youngbird watched Martinez at work.
There is some uncertainty as to whether this fair led to the introduction of the double-spouted wedding vase, with its merging of two forms into one, into the Cherokee pottery repertoire, as Youngbird also said that she saw this form in a book. (Potter Lillie Bryson told University of Pennsylvania scholar Frank Speck that it was she who conceived of this form.) Wherever its origin, the form quickly became a staple and was repeated by Bryson, Youngbird, Maude Welch and subsequent generations of Cherokee potters. By the late 1930s, the double-spouted vase had become a common Catawba form as well.” 3
Little is known of whether the Cherokee method of firing to produce “a rich black color” continued into the first decades of the 20th century, and some have postulated that Youngbird may have reintroduced blackware as well (perhaps again inspired by her observation of Pueblo potters). Whether Youngbird was the sole maker of blackware in the 1930s, by the 1950s, it was a signature style. A magazine noted that her blackware pottery was “instantly recognized.” Youngbird’s enthusiasm was evident.
I sold them in the shops and they’d say, “Oh this is beautiful. This is prettier than the last bunch.” I got so I was making a real good living at it.
Double-spouted wedding vase
Blackware oil lamp
Always resourceful, Youngbird explained how she achieved these results by firing pottery in her kitchen cook stove.
I’d put some old corn with grain still on it and some with only cobs and that’s what made ’em black. I never put them in a bonfire. I used wood, hickory, ’til the pottery got hot, then I’d add the cobs and they’d stay black. 4
Certainly, the popularization of the wedding vase and blackware finish are innovative adaptations that became “traditional” Cherokee forms in their widespread production and use.
M. Anna Fariello
Biography excerpted from Cherokee Pottery: From the Hands of our Elders
Published by The History Press, 2011
1. Thomas J. Blumer, “Rebecca Youngbird: An Independent Cherokee Potter,” Journal of Cherokee Studies 5 (1980), 43–48; Rebecca Youngbird interview by Thomas J. Blumer (1979), Blumer Collection, University of South Carolina-Lancaster.
2. Atlanta Constitution,“American Indian Exhibition Staged This Week at Southeastern Fair,” September 30, 1934; Atlanta Constitution, “Four Indian Villages, Seminole, Pueblo, Navajo, Cherokee Show Varied Types of Construction at Southeastern Fair,” September 23, 1934; Atlanta Constitution, “Indians of Twelve Tribes Reveal Artistry In Varied Handicrafts Practiced at Fair,” October 5, 1934.
3. Kaye Carver Collins and Angie Cheek, Foxfire 12 (New York: Anchor Books, 2004),409; Vladimir J. Fewkes, “Catawba Pottery-Making with Notes on Pamunkey Pottery-Making, and Coiling,” Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 88 (July 7 1944), 99-100; Blumer, Thomas, “Catawba Influences on the Modern Cherokee Tradition,” Appalachian Journal 14, no. 2 (Winter 1987), 164.
4. W.H. Holmes, “Aboriginal Pottery of the Eastern United States,” Twentieth Annual Report of the Bureau of American Ethnology (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1903), 53; Dinah Smoker Gloyne, “Cherokee Craftsmen,” Mountain Life and Work 26 (1951), 16; Rebecca Youngbird interview.