My Father, Joe Coloque (Left)

Reyes Madalena

American Indian Traditional Pottery by Reyes Madalena of Jemez Pueblo, New Mexico


I was born in the late 1930's in Jemez Pueblo, New Mexico, which is located in the Southwest United States.  "Walatowa" is the ancestral name of this village, and it contains all of my relatives, the last Towa speaking people in the world.  The Jemez people once occupied over 60 pueblo villages and this last small village now remains, serving as a timeless memorial to the strength and knowledge passed on by the great ancestors, the Anasazi.  Renowned for their excellence in architecture, basket weaving, pottery making and farming the Anasazi people flourished in the southwest for countless millennia.

I was six years old when I became interested in the tradition of pottery making.  I began my education by listening attentively and closely watching my mother and aunts, all of whom were potters. My grandmother, Benina Medina Madalena, an excellent potter from Zia Pueblo taught them. Benina learned the art from her mother and this tradition has been repeated throughout history.  She married my Jemez Pueblo grandfather Ramon Madalena in the late 1800's, in a ceremony held in Jemez Pueblo.  At that time, Jemez Pueblo had ceased all aspects of pottery making, so it was actually my grandmother who reintroduced the tradition to the pueblo.  Most of her work was done in black & white & poly-chrome on white clay.  She also worked with terra-cotta clay also which is similar to the clay that I now use.  Grandma Benina was a well-respected potter winning awards in the early 1920's at the now famous Santa Fe Indian Market. Many of the fine and outstanding Medina potters from Zia Pueblo are my relatives and I feel very honored and privileged to be a part of this ancient way of life.

My other grandmother, Nazarita Benedicto was from Cochiti Pueblo.  She too was a good potter but she chose basket weaving as her favorite form of expression and excelled in all aspects of that art form. Both grandmothers' dedication and love for their work instilled in me a desire to pursue the way of life that I have chosen. The ethereal beauty found in works of both mediums is inspiring to me personally and is immensely appreciated by my family, friends and myself.

I began many years ago to incorporate the corn stalk symbol to my signature on my pottery as I belong to the Corn Stalk Clan, the familial clan of my mother's ancestry.  As an indigenous and staple crop for the people of the Americas, corn holds very high respect among native people, as do other staple crops.  Native Americans have always been and will always be infinitely grateful for such wonderful blessings.

My earliest memories are of times spent admiring the incredible things that my family could do with the things that were found in Nature.  Native people have always lived very close to the earth and have felt special affinity with it.  I am no exception, and I feel especially blessed that I can combine my abilities with gifts from our Creator to make things both beautiful and useful. The earth is like a cellar that our Creator has filled with an abundance of wonderful treasures.  Some of my people have chosen silver and turquoise, others reeds and grass, wood or stone.  I have chosen clay to show my appreciation for all that is offered to me.

I am thankful that I am capable of upholding one of the great traditions of my ancestors by working in harmony with the Earth.  My unique works of art have given their owners years of pride, pleasure and value.  In turn, this has brought me an immeasurable amount of satisfaction.

The Smithsonian Institute has acquired several pieces of my pottery and I feel greatly honored that my works have received a substantial number of awards from many reputable organizations, galleries, universities and museums throughout the country.  This recognition has come to mean a great deal to me as it allows me to assist in keeping the public informed of the many attributes that traditional Native American art has to offer.

One of my life’s great delights culminated from a discovery made in the year 2000, a vein of fine gray clay found in the Four Corners area.  This clay yields several variations of white of which much of my current work is made.  For decades, I have searched for its origins.  Because of its purity, I am sure this is the same clay as my ancestors used so this find was a momentous discovery.  Pottery of ancient times was used for cooking, grain storage, serving food and transporting water. It was also used for ceremonial and medicinal purposes.  Modern and contemporary pieces are seldom functional for these purposes, as too often they are unable to withstand the heat-tempering process required for water and fireproofing.  Average clays and paints found on the market often contain harmful additives, which help to accomplish a desired pliability and finish simply for aesthetic results.  Unfortunately those same additives compromise the purity of the clay, which renders the finished piece useless for the aforementioned purposes.

The pottery that I make is formed using materials that come from one of the Creator's most blessed gifts to us, the Earth itself, which is the finest and purest source available.  Great emphasis is placed on careful selection of the clay, as it must be very pure to be manipulated into an aesthetically beautiful and functionally reliable piece of traditional-style pottery.  Viability of the finished piece is reliant on the quality and purity of the clay as well as the method of preparation.

My clays all come in their natural rock form and are mined only by my immediate family.  Both the clays and paint materials found within nature are recognizable by a trained eye, but finding clay of the highest purity takes intensive exploration and effort.  Quality clay mines are not often easily accessible and many of my sources are hidden far from common areas and are quite difficult to reach.  The clay is carried out on foot, using backpacks weighing up to 100 pounds per load!  It is a tough job but well worth the effort as being a potter is not just my job or hobby, it is my way of life.         

It requires over a month of preparation time for my clays to reach ideal conditions for use.  It is saturated, mixed and strained several times and finally placed in small vats to allow seepage of excess moisture. Weeks later, through evaporation the clay reaches its perfect texture and pliability.  Only then is it ready to be formed into a finished piece.

My pottery is all formed by hand and I have never used a potter's wheel.  My largest pieces are constructed using the ancient "coil and scrape" method.  When the pot has dried it is sanded to a smooth finish then polished and painted.  My designs are traditional patterns done in natural color with black paint as well as in poly-chrome and they are painted prior to firing.  Polishing with an ancient river rock creates the high sheen gloss on my pottery.  The fist-sized piece of red jasper that I use in the burnishing process is very special to me as it was passed down through the generations and eventually my grandmother passed it to my mother, who had eight children.  I feel a great sense of responsibility and privilege to be able to continue use of this stone in my work.  For me it will always carry the energy and spirit of the earth as well as a providing a significant and historic connection to my ancestors.

Traditional underground firing is a process that dates back many countless thousands of years.  In ancient times the firing pits were lined with sandstone and the pieces to be fired were covered with shards of broken pots, which protected them from the intense heat from above.  Trade secrets prevent the majority of traditional potters from divulging too much information regarding the firing process, as doing so could understandably compromise our livelihoods. Suffice it to say that the traditional firing process has remained primarily unchanged.  There are still such secrets as the type of wood to use, how much, and how often, and I was taught all of these things at a very young age.


In ancient times, tradition and ceremony were of extreme importance to Native peoples, much as in modern times. The ceremony of marriage was of particular significance for it meant that a sacred arrangement joined together the lives of two people and united two clans.

The wedding pot itself embodied a highly symbolic role in the traditional rite of marriage. The vessel was utilized in the actual ceremony and the contents were blessed by the “Cacique”, the traditional leader of the pueblo.

Following the vows, the groom would drink from one opening and the bride from the other. The vase would then be destroyed to symbolize that the couple was relinquishing their single pasts and entering a lifelong commitment as “One”.