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(Many Paths)
An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America
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Catawba Potter in Documentary on "Uncommon" Artists
by Andrew Dys - The Rock Hill (SC) Herald Online
credits: photos courtesy of The Rock Hill (SC) Herald Online
There are billions of people in the world. Only a few thousand of those people are members of the Catawba Indian tribe. Of those, just a couple of handfuls are Catawba potters.

Of those handful, maybe the most recognized master potter still alive is the one and only Margaret Robbins, who lives in the last house on the last road on the Catawba reservation in a house that has cats and engine blocks outside the front porch.

Her handmade pots, using only clay dug from the Catawba River that runs within earshot of her ancestral and present home, and crafted by hand without a wheel as the Catawba have done since before there was a place called America or South Carolina, are in museums and private collections across oceans.

She still makes the pots at her kitchen counter.

Thursday night on South Carolina ETV, a documentary about six people in this state of 4 million-plus souls who forge real things from their brains and hands, called "Uncommon Folk," will air. Robbins is one of the six.

But the word, "uncommon?" Margaret Robbins is making her pottery from a place in her soul. She is more than uncommon.

"The pottery of the Catawba, my people, is who we are," said Robbins. "Only the Catawba do it this way."

Robbins is the daughter of two of the greatest Catawba master potters ever, the late Earl and Viola Robbins. The couple, married 68 years, died two months apart early last year sandwiched around their 88th birthdays. Their pots are housed in places such as the Louvre in Paris and the Smithsonian Institution .

The Catawba have sold pottery for years but Robbins said her parents' best-known works - Earl's snakehead pots and Violas' double-headed braid bowls - are "priceless treasures" because their individual styles died with them.

No two Catawba pots are ever the same.

Catawba pottery is the singular most well-known aspect of the tribe to the rest of the country and world, said Chief Donald Rodgers.

"President Obama was on TV last year, and a Catawba pot - an Earl Robbins snakehead pot - was on a shelf behind him," Rodgers said. "Catawba pots are all over this world. And only our master potters such as Margaret Robbins create them."

Catawbas have dug one type of clay, called pan clay, from a creek inlet on the Lancaster County side of the river for centuries. Another type of clay, pipe clay, comes from another nearby spot on the river in a sort of cave.

The Catawba have shaped the clay and burned it without electricity as long as there has been fire. No Catawba pot is painted, or glazed, ever, or heated by an electric oven.

Any pot truly Catawba is rubbed with special stones pulled from the bed of the river, stones millions of years old, rubbed for hours and days by hand, after baking in a wood-stoked fire.

"The pottery my grandparents made, that my mother makes, is a part of them," said Paige Childers, Margaret's 18-year-old daughter.

Margaret Robbins does not uses casts, molds or instruments. Everything is done by feel.

"Someone asked me one time why I didn't use a potters wheel, and I laughed and said, "They'd throw me out of the tribe,' " Robbins said. "We do not use wheels. Or paint. Or glaze. Nothing but..."

Robbins tries to explain what the Catawba use, and it comes out, just, "Us. The Catawba people. The pottery comes from inside us."

Part of the legacy of Catawba pottery is all who have made it, and the few who still do, had to find time while working regular jobs and raising kids and trying to live as proud Catawba Indians.

One of the greatest things about Robbins - and there are a lot of great things about Robbins, a mother of three and a grandmother of four who says she is stuck at age 29 and holding there for the rest of her life - is she never set out to be an artist, never calls herself an artist.

Catawba pottery is done by hand, by feel, while juggling bills and fixing dinner and sweeping floors, after a regular job is finished. Earl and Viola Robbins did it all their lives. Margaret Robbins still does. When she needs clay Robbins gets soaked to the waist and digs the clay from the earth as her forefathers alone have done forever.

"I am a Catawba potter," Robbins said. "That is what, who, I am. And I am proud of that."

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