Indian children enrolled at the Belcourt School on the Turtle Mountain Indian Reservation were the first in the state of North Dakota to make simple pottery under a plan developed by Miss Margaret Cable. Miss Cable of UND put a course together after first hand study of how the Southwestern Indians made their world famous pottery with only their hands, the native clay and liberal supplies of cow dung for firing. This was suitable for rural schools, high schools, camp and club projects. The plan appears but a natural step beyond the sand pile and mud pie stage of handiwork, but results in bowls, plates and little containers, decorated with designs which might have been made with a stick, a thumbnail or any instrument at hand. The course aimed to make it possible for the children of North Dakota to utilize the local clays obtainable on every hand and make simple hand molded pottery with no more equipment then can be found in any rural school yard or its immediate vicinity.
Mrs. Carey (Corbert) Grant an art and handicrafts instructor at the Belcourt school was the first teacher to complete the teacher training course at the University of North Dakota Ceramics Department in March 1936. Mrs. Grant did her research work under the supervision of Miss Frieda Hammers.
At this time the school year at the reservation was April 1 to December 1due to bad weather and roads in the winter. As they had no kilns at this time, school during the summer made it easier to use the cow dung method of firing. Pottery was started with the April 1936 school year. Mrs. Grant taught beadwork, leather craft, clay craft and general art. In the first year (1936) of clay craft they produced 1647 pieces of pottery.
In November of 1936 Mrs. Grant was at UND in Grand Forks to continue work on glazes. She worked out a number of colored and colorless glazes, which would work with the reservation clay. Also by November of 1936 the Belcourt School had two kilns installed. A large one with kerosene burners was installed in the new community building. This made it possible to fire the pottery to a higher temperature and use high fire glazes then was possible with the cow dung method. Also a small electric test kiln had been installed in the arts and crafts room. This made it possible to make quick tests of clays and glazes and was also use in research along those lines. Later on Emma Parisien a former student was responsible for making the glazes.
In January 1937 pottery (clay craft) was added to the adult education evening classes.
Mrs. Grant writes in September of 1937 that there were a large number of outside visitors that came to Belcourt that summer. One of the things they were shown was the arts and crafts department. The pottery, basketry, beadwork and finger weaving exhibits attracted lots of attention. There were quite a large number of sales of Indian handicraft to the tourists.
Clay was obtained from a ditch near the school. When this clay was fired it took on a soft brownish red color. Most of the clay used was native clay from the reservation, but some clay from different areas of North Dakota was used. Clays, firing methods and glaze accounted for the different shades of red.
In firing the cow dung method you support an iron grate with bricks. Then you put the pottery pieces on the grate. Now you make a dome over all of this with sun dried cow dung. With this method and type of fuel you could reach a temperature of 700 degrees centigrade in 45 minutes. The same process with wood requires a more complicated method and several hours time, with less likelihood of dependable results.
The Turtle Mountain Indian Pottery signature mark
Taking their cue from the Southwestern Indians who used no glaze, some pieces were finished by burnishing with a small satin smooth stone or smooth bone, to a glassy sheen and then fired. The pieces would come out with a polished glossy look. You could end up with a red or black finish. The red and black pieces went through identical process up to the stage where the temperature had reached 700 degrees. At that point if you want black pieces, the fire would be smothered with organic material. The clay then, instead of oxidizing with the resulting red color, is carbonized and becomes the lustrous black ware.
The children did all of the preparing, from digging the clay, cleaning it of foreign particles, drying it to the proper stage, aging the clay, and wedging (the kneading process) the clay for use. All of the work was done with the simplest tools and the cost of preparation was kept to the minimum. The child got to take home the first piece that they made. The other pieces that the child made were displayed in the craft room and if they were sold the child got to take part of the money home and the other part was used to buy more supplies.
All of the work was hand molded. That is, a potter’s wheel was not used. They used the thumb method and the coil method to make their pieces. Two types of finishes were used, some pieces were polished (burnished) and others were glazed, before firing. Designs were either scratched or painted on the surface. The type of clay found on the reservation and the hand molded, combined with the native Chippewa designs developed a pottery which was attractive and somewhat different from other types of pottery that were on the market at that time.
The various styles of pottery vases that were made by Turtle Mountain Indian Pottery
5 inch high vase, The glassy sheen area was burnished before firing. No glaze was used.
Plate with Chippewa design, Signed on the bottom "Emma Parisien
Orders for the pottery were received from several places in the United States and Canada. The first pieces were ready for sale the middle of the summer of 1936. Each piece was incised "Turtle Mountain Indian Pottery, Belcourt, N. D." or as much as there was room for on the base of the article and a number. Also some pieces have a turtle with two mountains incised on the base of the article. Some pieces have the potter’s name incised on the base also. A few of the potter’s names are Emma Parisien, Nora Azure, Elda Poitra, Cecelia Martin, Belle Rose Decoteau, Joan Decoteau, Mary R Belgarde, Annie Jerome, Francis Decoteau, Francis LaFrombois and B.J. A careful record was kept of each piece molded.
Some of the items that were made are plates, bowls, table top tiles, tea tiles, wall plaques, lamp bases, candle holders, ash trays, candy dishes, trinket trays and novelty paper weights.
As of now, we are unable to determine the date that the pottery program was discontinued. In an interview we were led to believe the pottery program was in existence for only several years, possibly closing in 1942.
Earth, Water, and Fire - The History and Uses of North Dakota Clay, 1998 Spring/Summer Issue North Dakota History - Journal of the Northern Plains, Volume 65, No. 2 & 3. $10.50 postpaid to State Historical Society of North Dakota, 612 Boulevard Avenue, Bismarck, ND 58505. 701-328-2666.