The Life-Giving Pottery of Katsitsionni Fox

December 07, 2022 Nia Tero Season 2 Episode 14
The Life-Giving Pottery of Katsitsionni Fox
Show Notes Transcript

“When I'm making pots, I'm thinking all the way back to creation.” - Katsitionni Fox  

Welcome to this final episode of Seedcast’s second season, a story full of heart and warmth about the power of intention. Katsitsionni Fox (Haudenosaunee artist, Bear Clan) takes us inside her studio and shares how making clay pots connects her to her ancestors, the women who made pots for daily use in Akwesasne, a Mohawk Territory in upstate New York.  

The practice of making these pots was lost for generations and the clay earth itself was contaminated, but now Katsitsionni and others are revitalizing this traditional craft with great care, sharing teachings across tribes, nations and generations. Making “grandmother clay pots,” Katsitsionni incorporates her cultural practice of gratitude while cultivating the curiosity of a new generation of potters. She has built deep relationships with the clay and shares her teachings with us: “If everybody was having that intention every day to be grateful and thankful and to acknowledge all of our relatives, this world would be a different place.”  

See Katsitsionni Fox’s pottery on her Instagram.  

Katsitsionni is also an award-winning director and is creating a film for the second season of Reciprocity Project, a collaboration between Nia Tero and Upstander Project. 

Host: Jessica Ramirez. Producer: Taylor Hensel. Story Editor: Jenny Asarnow 

Seedcast is a production of Nia Tero, a global nonprofit which supports Indigenous land guardianship around the world through policy, partnership, and storytelling initiatives.

Enjoy the Seedcast podcast on the Nia Tero website, Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and your other favorite podcast platforms.

Keep up with Seedcast on Instagram and use the hashtag #Seedcast.

Seedcast Season 2 Episode 14

The Life-Giving Pottery of Katsitsionni Fox

December 7 2022

[00:00:00] Jessica Ramirez: Hi listener, thank you for being here. I'm Jessica Ramirez, your host for Seedcast, joining you all from Coast Salish territory. 

This is our last episode of the season, and I'm really excited to share it with you all. This episode makes me want to chill with a pillow, grab some headphones, and listen closely.

[theme music softly plays in the background]

Because as this year comes to an end, what better time than to reflect on where we've been, and where we want to go. It's almost winter solstice, and it's also a time in general when people are gathering, and stories are being shared. And so I invite you to hear this story.  

Today, we are bringing you one that is full of heart and warmth. This episode tells a story of intention. Mohawk artist, Katsitsionni Fox, shares about her practice of making clay pots. Clay pots were at one time a daily necessity for her ancestors. Now the skillset and art form is being revitalized by Katsitsionni, and others in her community.  

Theme song by Mia Kami: We are standing, hear our calling, we are rooted to the ground we’re here to stay. No staying quiet, we stand united, we are rooted to the ground, can't tear us down, we’re here to stay…

[00:01:44] Katsitsionni Fox: [Speaks in Mohawk]. My name is Katsitsionni, which means “I Make Flowers”; and I'm from the community of Ahkwesáhsne, and I'm Bear Clan. 

 [00:01:52] Jessica: Ahkwesáhsne is a Mohawk territory located in Upstate New York. Katsitsionni lives there. Not only is she a potter, she's a filmmaker too. She is one of a number of Haudenosaunee women working as artists to preserve their culture and move it forward. 

[00:02:10] Katsitsionni: As an artist making pottery today, when I'm making the pieces, sometimes they're functional. Like, I've made pots that you can cook in, and I've gifted pots like that, and I think that's important; but also I'm making pottery that creates more of a statement on things that are going on today that are, you know, current and relevant to our people. And those things that I make, they're things that just come through me that need to come out.  

[00:02:41] Jessica: Katsitsionni's pottery is intricate, and communicates intentional messages for past and present times, as well as for the generations to come. While this particular story comes from within Katsitsionni's community, it holds lessons that could teach us all and remind us that no matter where you come from, you can slow down, be present, and live with gratitude. 

[sounds of hands pounding clay]  

[00:03:14] Katsitsionni: The pottery that I make, I call it “life giver’s pottery”, and that's because when I'm making pots, I'm thinking all the way back to creation. In our creation story, the Creator, when he made people, he made them outta clay. And all of the natural world was made out of clay, so it came from the earth. And so as I'm creating different things in clay, like pots or pipes or anything like that, I'm thinking about that—that life giving energy of the earth as I'm creating, and also the life giving energy of women. 

[the sound of a crackling fire plays in the background] 

Rematriation is a term that I've just started hearing the past few years, and now it's in the dictionary [laughs]. Really, it's about, like, bringing our traditional knowledge of the women back, ‘cause the women have been suppressed by western society here on Turtle Island. I'm just starting—I'm sure other people, too, are just starting—to witness Indigenous women stepping back into the spaces that they used to hold. So in our communities, a lot of the movements that are happening are led by women. And for my people, for the Haudenosaunee people, women are really central to everything. And women had equality. So we come from a matrilineal society where our clan comes from our mother. It's the clan mothers that choose our chiefs. And so that's how I was raised. It's probably not like that in most of the world. And so I've been seeing things like that come about where women are really starting to pick up their roles again. And that's encouraging, because when women are back in those spaces, it really changes what's happening in communities.

 [guitar music plays] 

[00:05:38] Katsitsionni: So, for the  , clay pottery was something that was done by women. So, the women would gather the clay, and make the pots, and it would be something that we would use to cook in. So, a really long time ago, we used to live in longhouses arranged by clans. All of the women would be living together in one longhouse, and the husbands, if they married, would move in. And they would have fire pits going down, ‘cause there'd be a lot of families living in one longhouse. 

So we would cook in the clay pots over open fire. We'd usually, like, move some coals to the side and set the pots in there, and then the food would cook. And it tastes so different when it comes from the pot! The flavor that it gets from being over the open fire, you know, being by the fire, the smokiness, and also the foods that [have] been cooked in the pot. The flavors keep getting integrated into that clay pot as you cook into it. And some of the foods we would make would be soups, and stews, and mash, and things that were made out of the Three Sisters, mostly—corn, beans, and squash—and then whatever animals the men had hunted, you know, we'd put that in the stew. 

[guitar music continues]

[00:07:01] Jessica: These traditional tools were greatly impacted by colonizatio n and trade with the Europeans.  

[00:07:06] Katsitsionni: One thing that happened, when the Europeans came over, is they brought many things that we didn't have before. They brought guns, they brought knives, they brought metal things; and one of the things they brought was metal pots. So, that was something that our women started to adapt, those metal pots, and trade for those. And so the art of making clay pots was put to the side, and was lost for a lot of generations. 

 [00:07:29] Jessica: Right now, all across Turtle Island, there are Indigenous peoples and communities reclaiming traditional ways that have been dormant. The journey of navigating back to learning these practices can be strengthened when culture and knowledge is shared. And in Katsitsionni's community, and others, there are artists working alongside one another to retrace their ancestor’s steps and relearn these old ways, and even further, moving these practices forward into the future.

[00:08:05] Katsitsionni: Our community is very rich in artists, so we're really fortunate in that way. We had another person that was working in pottery that's a little younger than me. His name is Roger Perkins, and he was living down in Mohawk Valley, which is where the Mohawk people used to live. And he started finding these pottery shards out there in the mountains and people find them all over what's now New York State, because our people lived in New York State, and now occupy, I think, less than half of a percent of our original homelands here. Farmers, you know, will find them; when they're digging up their crops, these will pop up. I haven't found any myself, I'm still waiting for some to come to me! I've handled them, you know, you look at the sides of them and you can see kind of how they made things, how thick it was and the marks they were using to put in there. And it's, I don't know, it's something to hold those and feel the ancestors in there. You know, think about what they must have been doing a long time ago when they were making these pots. 

[guitar music plays] 

I think the practice of making clay pots is important because it connects us back to our ancestors, to our grandmothers, and that's what I feel like when I'm making pottery myself. Whether it's gonna be a functional piece that we're gonna cook in, or it's more of an artist work, that's an artist statement. One of the things that I do, just in my own practice as an artist when I'm making pottery, is I hold the clay before I even start. So, I take a piece of the clay off and I hold it, and I connect to that clay. I feel the energy of that clay, and I ask permission from that clay. I'm talking to the clay. I'm saying my name, and my clan, and where I'm from, and what my intentions are with working together. So we have, like, a relationship, even when we start. So, we're working together—myself and the clay—to make whatever's gonna come forth. And I think that's one thing that people forget, is your intention and your relationship you have with everything that you handle, that you touch.

 [guitar music continues]

 [00:10:41] Jessica: When I first saw photos of these clay pots, I was stunned by the detail and beauty. Most of them utilize different textures and colors, and images, to tell a story. Strawberries, a turtle shell, a moon. One of the pots on the inside has a carved out image of a child still growing in the womb. 

[00:11:05] Katsitsionni: I think it's so important, the work that we're doing as artists, that we're leaving things behind that represent who we are today so that the next generations will understand, you know, what we were going through at this time; and that we were conscious of them, and the things that we were doing, so that there would be something here for them. You know, I sit here even with my own grandkids. I have a studio in my house, so I'll be sitting at my desk and I'm making a pot, and they have a little table in the corner and they're over there making things with clay. So, it's important to include them too, as an artist, when you're working. 

[guitar music continues] 

Just this past summer I went and I learned from a master potter in Oklahoma, Richard Zane Smith. So there was three people from our community that went out there to learn how he does his pottery. And he's Wyandot; we've had a lot of relationships with the Wyandots, the Haudenosaunee people. We have our culture and traditions as Haudenosaunee people, but we're always learning from each other, from other Nations, because we're all in the same boat—we've all lost things—so we're all navigating back to learning some of these things, and it's cool when we can work together and do that. And so when we went out to visit him, we stayed there for, I think, nine days; and he showed us how to harvest clay. So we went and we dug up clay, and it was actually dry, the clay that we dug up. So we dug it up, and then we put it in water, and separated the clay from all the other materials that we didn't want in the clay. So that's another thing you gotta think about when you're working with natural materials is, is it contaminated? Nowadays it's something that we have to worry about, and a lot of Native communities are near places that are contaminated because that's where a lot of these industries like to place themselves. So, we always gotta be careful of that when we're picking medicines, or we're picking clay, or even when we're gardening.

[sounds of hands pounding clay]  

[00:13:45] Richard Zane Smith: Okay, so in here now you want to just use your hand and smear this coil down inward like that. And some of this is just by feel… 

[00:13:55] Katsitsionni: And then he showed us how to make pots. So, he had a different method of doing it than what I was doing here. He would take the clay and he would flatten it out, and he had another pot, and he called it a grandmother pot. So, his idea was that we would have used one of our grandmother's pots to make another pot. So, he turned the pot upside down and we put the clay on top of it, and we paddled the clay to take the form of the big part of the belly of the pot. And then we kind of let it dry ‘til it's kind of leathery, and then we took it off, and then we finished the rest doing coils—roll out a little coil and then, you know, add it to the pot.

 [guitar music plays] 

It goes all the way back to the creation story for me, because when the world was made—and this is something that Richard Zane Smith talked about when he was talking about the grandmother pots, and I'll actually read what he sent to me ‘cause I was asking him more about that. He says, “It came to me when I was working with paddling clay over another older pot, and hearing about the stories of Sky Woman taking a bit of earth and spreading it over the back of the turtle, then spreading the clay earth with her feet as she danced the first eskenye, which is the woman shuffle dance, spreading it out to the edge of the turtle shell.” For me, it was just an eye opener, seeing the connection, and he says he wished he had heard it from someone else, but this just came to him while he was making a pot. The story illustrates how a young woman would choose her grandmother or auntie's round bottom cooking pot to start her own. Starting from an elder's form, she can begin to learn to make her pottery and have a solid foundation on which to start her own. So that's what he wrote when I asked him about it.

And it makes sense to me. I—it really touched me, reading that and thinking about that as a metaphor. You know, how Sky Woman, when she came here, she brought a lot of knowledge with her, she brought seeds with her, she brought the songs with her; and all of the things that she had learned from in the Sky World, she brought here to this world. And it was Sky Woman that created the Earth, and that's how she did it. She took a little bit of dirt that the muskrat had brought her and put it on a turtle's back, and she started to dance until the turtle spread out and became the Earth. And that's just how it felt when I was there. And I was using his pot to paddle that clay over the top of it, you know, and to kind of mimic that shape.

[00:16:42] Katsitsionni: And when I was doing it, and he was talking about this, you know, and we were looking at all the pottery shards he had in his studio; it made me sad to think about that because we don't have our grandmother's pots, because we haven't done it for so many generations. And what we find is those shards and just, like, little remnants and pieces. And when I was handling those shards and looking at how they were made and you know, all of the little marks that they made with so much care, and I was thinking about them sitting in the longhouses a long time ago, making those, the women. The young ones would be sitting beside them, I would imagine. And when they made those pots, they were making it because they wanted to care for their families. So, they knew that they were gonna be cooking in those pots, so they put a lot of love into those pots for what their purpose was. And those pots, when we would finish with them and they would eventually break, they would just go back to the earth again. 

That's another thing that we don't think about as much in today's society, is all of the things that we're buying at the store and all of the waste that we're making. And our people didn't do that. You know, we weren't a wasteful people. We used everything and we didn't have things that were throwaway, you know, everything was meaningful. So those are the kind of things I think about with the pots, and that's why I think it's so important to bring this tradition back, and to keep it alive for future generations. 

[music plays] 

[00:18:26] Katsitsionni: And he was such a good teacher! He was so patient with us, and really took his time to explain all the details of how to do it. I think I made three pots while I was there, including a clay drum, which is something that we haven't really seen around here in a long time. It was something that we used to use, was clay drums, and then we started to use the wood water drums. So all of us made a clay drum while we were there, and we were even singing while we were in his studio, and all of the clay drums had a different sound depending on how big it was. 

[sounds of singing and drumming play – “New Women’s Dance” sung by Nihahsennaa Peters]

[sound of fire crackling and voices plays in the background]

[00:19:31] Katsitsionni: He also showed us how to fire them. So we finished our pots and we dried them out. And then we had a big fire, which is how we traditionally would do the pots. So when the pots were dry, we built a fire, and then we would move the pots closer and closer to the fire, you know, adapting them to the heat. And then eventually, we pushed back the logs and had all of the clay pots in the middle, and then started building the wood up on top of the clay pots, and around the clay pots, so that it was really, really hot and the fire was really big. And it was intense too! It was hard to even get in there to, like, to move the wood around and stuff. And he even had a fire suit on at the end. He had a fireman's jacket on, and the gloves, and like, a shield for his face to be able to get in there and pull those pots out while they were still red hot. So he pulled those out, pulled out the pots, and then he had white pine on the bottom and it added, like, this smoky look to the pots. I think we were up ‘til almost midnight that night, ‘cause it took a long time—took all day to fire those pots. 

[00:20:43] Katsitsionni: When I got home, I got an email from a friend of mine that works at the Rochester Museum, Jamie Jacobs, and he's in charge of the Indigenous collection that they have there—very knowledgeable Seneca man—and they were working on a grant that they were writing—one of the New York State artist grants—and he said that he wanted to bring me out there to make a pot, and to have it beside one of the old potteries that they had in their collection. So, I start telling him about what Richard had said about these grandmother pots and how we had paddled the clay around the pots, and take the form of our grandmother's pot. And I was saying that we don't have those here, we don't have pots that are intact. And he says, “Well, we have a couple pots in our collection.” And he immediately sent images to me. And so they have this beautiful ancient pot from our grandmothers that I don't even know how old it is, and it's like a foot and a half tall—huge, huge, huge pot. And right away I said, can I make a grandmother pot out of that pot? You know, as soon as I’d seen it, I had the urge to do that—to go there and to be able to take the shape of a pot that was made by our grandmothers and to bring it forward into today's time. So I'm still hoping that's something that they'll let me do. Well, I did mention it while I was on the call, and they seemed open to doing it, even though it's something they don't usually do in a museum. But I'm hoping I'll put that out in the universe that that happens. 

[guitar music plays]

 [00:22:25] Jessica: The grandmother clay pot teaches us the importance of having a solid foundation to live from, by paying attention to our elders and listening to those who have come before us. It's more than just a clay pot. It's the act and process of it taking shape, and the lessons that come with it. It's the stories that the pot tells—slowing down, being grateful, remembering that our actions live on after us. There is wisdom being offered in these stories, and I hope you choose to take in whatever might be resonating with you and carry  it forward.

 [00:23:11] Katsitsionni: I think intention is important in any work, any relationship you have with other people. It's important in everything that you do, whether you're an artist. For our people, the Haudenosaunee, one of our most important teachings is giving thanks. So, when we gather together for any important event, or even every morning when we wake up, we start the day by doing our Ohèn:ton Karihwatéhkwen, which translates to “the words that come before important matters”. So, when we get up, like when I get up in the morning, that's one of the things that I try to remember to do, is to give thanks to everything, to all our relations. So starting from the earth, giving thanks to the Mother Earth to all of our relatives, the people, to the waters, and the fish, to the insects, to the medicines, to the animals, giving thanks to all of our food plants, to the trees, and the birds and the winds, and the thunders, the sun, and the moon, and the stars; ‘cause these are all of our relatives. And I think that's something that people forget about in this busy world that we live in. Everybody's on the go. They're go, go, go, and sometimes don't stop to look around at all of the beauty that's around us and all that it gives to us. And I think that's something that the world could learn from, because if everybody was having that intention every day to be grateful and thankful, and to acknowledge all of our relatives, this world would be a different place. 

[guitar music continues] 

[00:23:11] Jessica: Our team offers immense gratitude to Katsitsionni Fox for sharing her story. If you want to see her work for yourself, go to her Instagram at @lifegiverspottery.

[theme music begins]

 Katsitsionni is currently directing a short film as a part of Reciprocity Project Season Two, an initiative of Nia Tero and Upstander Project. Thank you to Taylor Hensel, who produced this story from Muskogee Creek Territory in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Taylor is also a series producer on Reciprocity Project. We thank Richard Zane Smith for his teachings and song—the song you heard earlier is called New Woman's Dance, sung by Nihahsennaa Peters. 

Nia Tero is a Seattle-based foundation. We're both Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples with a mission to secure Indigenous guardianship for all vital ecosystems. That means we provide support to Indigenous peoples globally who are protecting their homelands from colonization and destruction. Their practices are one of our best guides for making earth livable for generations to come. Here at Seedcast, our guests represent themselves; they don't necessarily reflect the views of Nia Tero. We honor their honest perspectives and lived experiences. You can learn more about Seedcast and about our work at 

This episode was produced by Taylor Hensel with story editing from Jenny Asarnow, and mixed and edited by Stina Hamlin and Jenny Asarnow. Our executive producer is Tracy Rector. Our senior producer is Jenny Asarnow. Our consulting producer is Julie Keck. Our producer is Felipe Contreras. Our fact checker is Romin Lee Johnson. Our social media is by Nancy Kelsey. Our transcripts are by Sharon Arnold. Our theme song is by Mia Kami. I'm your host, Jessica Ramirez, and we'll be back in 2023 to share more stories with you all. 

Theme song “Rooted” by Mia Kami: You and I….you and I…Like the wind we still move, like the waves we rise high, like the sun we never die. No staying quiet, we stand united, we are rooted to the ground, can’t tear us down. We’re here to stay…