Yellville's Betty Gaedtke, who creates exquisite--and authentic--Quapaw pottery at her Te-Mi-Zhi-Ka Pottery studio, recently presented a curious argument for why she tries to make her clay works of art appear to be as ancient as those made by her ancestors.
"My pottery mimics what I see in museums," she told an attentive and sizable audience gathered by the Quapaw Quarter Association recently in Little Rock's East Village to learn about traditional methods, shapes and designs of the tribe's pottery. "That's where I get my inspiration. Our graves get robbed for this stuff. I make my pieces look old so people will buy them instead of robbing our graves."
While I'm not sure grave robbers will be discouraged by the availability of modern-day replicas (which carry price tags), Gaedtke's work stands on its own merit. It's enchanting.
The petite artist, who could barely be seen by those of us seated in the back of the Old Paint Factory building on East Eighth Street, seemed on firmer ground when discussing her heritage and her family.
The Quapaw are now federally recognized as the Quapaw Nation. "I have to keep reminding myself to refer to us that way, not as the Quapaw tribe," she said.
According to quapawtribe.com, the Quapaw were a division of a larger group known as the Dhegiha Sioux. The Dhegiha split into not only the Quapaw but also the Osage, Ponca, Kansa and Omaha when they left the Ohio Valley around 1200.
Tribal lore says that as the Dhegiha people were moving they came upon the Mississippi River, where a dense fog had arisen. The people created a rope by braiding a grapevine and while crossing the river, the vine snapped.
The Omaha, Ponca, Osage, and Kansa people continued against the current. The Quapaw believe their people were at the end of the braided-vine rope and floated down the river into Arkansas, where they became known as the "downstream people."
"My ancestors walked the ground of Arkansas Post," she said--thought to be the first European settlement in the lower Mississippi River Valley, established by Henri de Tonti in 1686 on the banks of the lower Arkansas River.
The tribe, known for its tattoos and ear piercings, prospered, Gaedtke said. Men did the hunting--mostly buffalo--and politics. They turned the buffalo over to the women, who utilized everything; nothing went to waste. The Quapaw diet, she explained, consisted of bison as well as deer, waterfowl, fish, wild turkeys, corn, beans, squash, pumpkins, fruits, nuts, and roots.
The federal government removed the Quapaw to Indian Territory in 1834; their tribal base is in present-day Ottawa County in northeastern Oklahoma.
"My grandmother was one of the last of the pureblood Quapaws; she died in 1987," Gaedtke said. "There are none left now. My mother, who died four months ago at 90, was the only remaining half-blood."
Her grandmother was the first to wed outside the tribe; "she married a white person. My mother did the same, so I'm a quarter [Quapaw]."
With the loss of elders came the loss of ancestral memory. "I always wanted to learn how to make tribal pottery, but life got in the way--kids, soccer games, school," she said. "When I retired I was intent on learning. Most of the teachers were gone by then," but around 2012 she learned how to make pottery with the methods, styles and decorations of the past. "My pots are not antique, but are authentic, and all of them are signed and smoked."
And she began to teach others.
"We started out teaching children, and it started growing. We got supporters to buy tools for us, we got this thing going; it took a couple of years. Now our pottery classes have as many as 40 participants. Everybody makes two pots. We gift them for use in our funerals; we're happy to share them."
Around 500-700 years ago, women made all the pottery, she said. Traditional tools include bear claws, deer antlers, sticks, bone, feathers, shells, and mussels. Clay was dug out of the dirt. Those are the tools she uses and teaches others to use.
Different clays have different colors, she observed. When she noticed how newly made pottery was turning out much lighter in color than that of artifacts such as head pots (commonly buried with Indians, along with clothing, dishes, personal items, and an eagle feather) and bowls representing effigy animals like buffalo (her Quapaw name, Te-mi-zhi-ka, means "little buffalo woman"), turtles, deer, otters, frogs, and dogs, that's when she worked to tone down the brightness so that her pottery blends in.
Quapaw pottery on display at the Museum of Native American History in Bentonville and the Tribal Museum in Quapaw, Okla., is often adorned with a swirl decoration. "We're the only tribe that decorates in red and white clay," she said. "We're still trying to figure out why we do the swirl; when smallpox came it took out 70 percent of our tribe, so we lost much of our memory."
According to Quapaw Tribe Materials, Special Collections Department, University of Arkansas Libraries, Fayetteville, "diseases inadvertently imported by Europeans proved a major source of trouble for the Quapaw. In the late 1600s, the Quapaw numbered about 5,000 people. After just 800 years the tribe consisted of a mere 700 individuals. That dramatic decline was largely the result of a smallpox epidemic subsequent to the introduction of the disease into the tribe in 1699 ... much of Quapaw tribal history and oral tradition died along with those 4,700 Native Americans."
If Betty Gaedtke has anything to say about it, that history and tradition will never disappear.
To learn more about her and about Te-Mi-Zhi-Ka Pottery, visit quapawpots.com.
Karen Martin is senior editor of Perspective.
Editorial on 09/08/2019
Print Headline: Reviving an artistic tradition