Sacred river clay provides spiritual bond to past for Caroleen Sanders

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Catawba Indian pottery on display

By Denyse Clark

Even as a child, Catawba Indian Nation potter Caroleen Sanders knew the clay her family used to fashion pottery was sacred. 


Sanders has never lost that deep level of respect for the red mud she uses to create beautiful pieces of art.

“It connects me with my ancestors,” she said. “I’ve always had a passion for our pottery tradition.”

Sanders’ work is on exhibit at the University of South Carolina Lancaster Native American Studies Center (NASC), 119 S. Main St. through May 30. 

The exhibit, “Reflections in Clay: Pottery by Caroleen Sanders” is in the NAS Center’s Duke Energy Gallery.

The USCL Native American Studies program is hosting its ninth annual Native American Studies Week today, March 21, through Thursday, March 27. 

Sanders will be on site Saturday, March 22, to speak with visitors about her life and her work.

Sanders, one of eight children of Willie Sanders and Verdie Harris Sanders, said it was her mother’s creations from Catawba River clay pottery that helped sustain the family.

“When I was growing up, it’s what kept us alive,” Sanders said. “Mom traded her pottery for milk and clothes.”

Sanders said her father was handicapped, so her mom did what she could to support the family. Sanders’ father also cut hair and wood to help support his family, she said adding, “life was not easy.” 

Sanders said as a child she was not allowed to play with Catawba clay.

The craft and the clay, she said, were much too serious for mud pies and the like.

“Momma always told me to watch,” Sanders recalled with a smile. “She didn’t have enough clay to spare because it was sacred.”

Sanders said some of the pieces she remembers her mother making were four-stem pipes, canoes, turtles and wedding jugs.

“Also, there were a lot of different shapes in pitchers,” she said.

One particular pitcher Sanders remembers seeing her mother make was the Rebecca Pitcher, so named for the biblical character, Rebecca at the well, recorded in Genesis 24. 

“If I go for any length of time not making pottery, I always start with a Rebecca Pitcher because it reminds me of Mom and helps me get back into the spirit of it quicker,” Sanders said. “It inspires me to do that piece.”

Sanders explained why she prefers the “sacred” clay from Catawba property as opposed to other clay.

“I haven’t made pieces other than that of Catawba River clay,” she said.  

“Well, there was the time I participated in the ‘Drawing with Clay’ class and the instructor brought clay, but I donated it back because it’s not my clay and I couldn’t put it in my collection. My clay is that powerful to me – there’s a spiritual connection to the past and my people.”

Sanders said the Catawbas are identified by their craftsmanship.

“Those pieces I make, they speak to those who can understand that oneness in the spirit and they go home with that person,” Sanders said. “It brings my inner spirit with it. The passion I have for this puts me in a trance and I come out and say, ‘did I really do that?’” 

Sanders showed off her “one and only” catfish creation with dove feathers for quills and Canada Geese feathers for fins. 

“There’s the Catawba River story of the catfish in the water ‘cat-wobbing’ in the water and we were sometimes called the ‘Cat-tuh-wah-buh,’” Sanders said.

“That catfish was in my head several years before it came out,” she said. 

Sanders also explained that in Native American history there are snake clans and turtle clans. She said the Catawba use snakes, turtles and more in their pottery creations.

“I’m a lover of nature and like to involve that in my work,” she said. “We use the black snake because it’s helpful to man. It keeps down pests and keeps insects out of pots. It doesn’t represent anything evil to us.”

Though less familiar than the pottery of the Southwest Native American tribes, Catawba pottery is recognized by scholars as the oldest continuous pottery tradition in North America. Sanders shared why it is important for her to continue the traditions of her family and her tribe. 

“I wouldn’t want to be guilty of not passing this on,” she said. “It would sadden me to know I had the talent and did not pass it on. It’s who we are and if it wasn’t for the clay, no one would know who the Catawba are – the history speaks.”


Contact reporter Denyse Clark at (803) 283-1152