"The Granny of one of our people."
Amanda Swimmer is one of the best-known potters among the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians. Born in 1921 and mother of seven children, she lives and works in the Strait Fork section of the Big Cove Community in the Qualla Boundary.
By trial and error, she developed her expertise in making open-pit fired pottery. "After I got married, I decided to hunt that clay right above where I lived," she recalls. "I made some small bowls, and I told my husband, I said, 'Let me try to burn them. Just make a hole right there in the yard.' We just piled wood in there and burned my pottery. And that came out pretty good. And I just kept on playing with that wood, off and on."
She works in a pottery tradition that was almost lost in the years following the removal to the west of most of the Cherokee tribe during the nineteenth century. Tribal potters who were still active at the turn of the century, ethnologists and art historians who documented their wares, potters from the adjacent Catawba tribe, and subsequent generations of Cherokee potters have all played a role in preserving and reviving the tradition of Cherokee pottery that Amanda Swimmer's work represents.
Her pottery-making techniques are ancient. Mrs. Swimmer has never used a potter's wheel. Instead, she molds pots and bowls, often beginning with coils of clay. She uses traditional techniques for smoothing and shaping, then presses designs into the clay with wooden and bone paddles, sea shells, and smooth rocks. After drying the pieces in the sun, she fires them in an open pit.
The woods she chooses for firing determine the final color. Hardwoods produce less smoke and thus a lighter gray color. Soft poplar, which she often uses, produces a thick smoke and a dark gray-to-black finish. "If I want to make them all different colors in brown," she says, "I usually get this oak and hickory and locust--locust gives you hot heat, it burns hot, and it gives you an orange color. And if you mix oak and maple and birch, that gives you a spotty color, and sometimes it gives you a picture on the bowl, too. It might be black or brown? you never know how they're going to turn out."
Amanda Swimmer's expertise in working with clay has won her national recognition and many awards. Her pottery has received prizes at the Cherokee Fall Festival in North Carolina, and is on display in Raleigh, in Washington, D.C., and as far away as New Mexico.
For over thirty-five years, she has demonstrated pottery making at the Oconaluftee Indian Village in Cherokee. She has also taught pottery to Indian children locally and has always been willing to give demonstrations or teach classes for interested groups or individuals. Pottery making has been important to her people and she wants to carry on the tradition. "I always think about my old ancestors," she says, "and I ought to just keep going and keep making pottery and teaching others to make pottery."
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