The sweet aroma of burning cedar billows up from a make-shift pottery kiln at the Mesa Verde National Park visitors center, then it quickly turns putrid, and tourists recoil backward holding their noses.
“I told you it would stink bad,” laughs Starr Tafoya to a crowd of 30 onlookers. “But burning the cow and horse manure is a key component to the Santa Clara pottery style.”
The manure gives the pottery its trademark deep-black sheen, she explains.
“For a more brown hue, we use less manure.”
Tafoya is affable and energetic as she generously demonstrates her black-ware pottery technique at the new Visitor and Research Center, a tradition she and her family have done annually for 20 years.
“It is a family business started by my mother Jane Baca who passed away recently,” she says. “She is with us, all around us, as we continue the tradition.”
The miniature Santa Clara pottery is wildly popular, and tourists talk excitedly in foreign languages, maneuvering to get closer to Tafoya while taking endless pictures.
They jostle around the sales table, whipping out currency to take home charming figurines of jet black bears, quails, big-horn sheep, horses, and turtles, along with bowls and vessels.
“Can you make me a wolf?” asks an Asian woman in a thick accent.
Even an artist as talented as Tafoya is continually learning, and she declines.
“I’ve tried, but they always turn out like a dog or a coyote. I have not figured out that little thing,” that sets apart a wolf. “I’ll get it one day.”
Clay for the pottery is harvested from hills outside the Santa Clara Pueblo, located southwest of Española, N.M. The red soils are ideal for ceramics, and there is a limitless supply.
“Is there a special name for the area?” someone asks, a slightly stereotypical inquiry.
“No, it is just where we have been going for generations,” Tafoya patiently answers.
Using the coil method, she pinches and forms a ball into a rough likeness of a bowl. Six to seven layers of slip are applied, and there are several “resting” periods before the shape is perfected and designs are carved. Then the firing process begins.
Tafoya’s sisters, Velma Baca and Kathy Klein speak in their native Tewa language while they add manure and cedar to the smoking kiln with the freshly made pottery pieces inside.
“It’s our first time here without our mom,” Baca says.
After an hour, the firing is complete, and the pieces are removed to cool in shade.
“I like the smaller pieces because they don’t take so long to fire and are more stable in the kiln,” Tafoya says.
The polishing is done with small stones and goes on for “hours and hours” to get the right sheen.
Santa Clara has hundreds of potters working in the village, and they are branching from classic styles, Tafoya said.
“The younger generation is less traditional, etching in more designs, using different techniques and experimenting more,” she said.
The annual demonstration at Mesa Verde is a part of her family’s tradition.
“I like coming here. It is like going home, where I’m supposed to be,” Tafoya said. “After all, us Pueblo tribes are descended from the people who lived in these cliff houses.”