Records suggest that Pueblo Indians of the American southwest began making figurines of open-mouthed mothers holding intently listening children a long time ago. It was a way to salvage clay that could not be used in conventional pots. They were called “singing mothers”.
Then around 1964, a Cochiti Pueblo potter by the name of Helen Cordero, who had struggled to make traditional pots that lived up to her expectations, had an idea. She would use clay to honor her grandfather, Santiago Quintano, who had been a great teller of stories in the Pueblo. Helen Cordero thus created the first storyteller figurine with an elder male. The grandfather was accompanied by five children clustered around him absorbing the details (and presumably, the lessons) of the story.
Step back for a moment and consider. Before social media, before television, before even radio, stories told by senior family members were the only medium by which children were taught. Even then, family members that had lived through life experiences, either first-hand or by stories told to them by senior family members, saw similar events puzzling their youngsters. They also saw that a well-told tale of those events was more interesting and, therefore, more likely of penetrating the mushy brains of children, than a recitation of dry “facts”.
It is not difficult to picture such scenes occurring throughout pueblos and families across the American heartland before Europeans began bringing the mixed blessings of social change and technology to their lives. As one would expect, creating storyteller figures spread across other pottery-making pueblos and tribes. They became popular among collectors as pieces of art or items of décor. More than that, they were memories of Native American history and survival manifested in clay, clay taken from the same earth that yielded life sustaining food and water.
We also know from “stories” told by potters that creating pottery is often a religious activity accompanied by prayers to Mother Earth when the shaping of the pot begins. Combine that with the cultural significance of the storytelling process. (Even among families nestled in their modern Western-culture homes, the bedtime story read by mom or dad is a staple of learning and growing up.)
We should not be surprised that more than 200 Native American pottery artists in all Pueblos now create storytellers for sale to avid collectors. Their product is carefully judged before purchase, must past high standards of potting excellence and present an aura of family sensitivity to be taken home to occupy a place of love and reverence in the home.
That is the story of storytellers, examples of which can be seen online at Native-PotteryLink.com.
When one considers the correlation between family love and tradition that incorporates mothers and fathers in the healthy care and upbringing of their precious children, one would have a hard time thinking of a more profound gift for a parent at this family-centered season.
"To make good potteries, you have to do it the right way, the old way, and you have to have a special happy feeling inside. All my potteries come out of my heart. I talk to them. They're my little people, not just pretty 8 that I make for money." -Helen Cordero, National Endowment for the Arts, 1986