Appropriation (?) of the Month: Mata Ortiz Pottery

By Rculatta  [CC BY 2.5], via Wikimedia Commons

By George Nicholas

Although the inappropriate use of another’s culture may be profoundly harmful, not all cultural borrowings constitute appropriation in this negative sense. 


Cultural sharing and exchange may be enormously enriching; insights drawn from lives lived in different ways, at other times and in other places, are a rich source of inspiration on any number of dimensions. 

The appropriation of various elements of Puebloan and other indigenous heritage in the southwestern United States has been an established practice from the time of contact, for several hundred years. The example of Mata Ortiz pottery in nearby northern Mexico is a case in which an ancient pottery style has inspired a new artistic movement that benefits indigenous peoples economically and culturally.

In the mid-1950s, a young man from Nuevos Casas Grandes in Chihuahua, Mexico, was inspired by pottery sherds from the archaeological site of Casas Grandes. Juan Quezada taught himself to produce pottery inspired by this ancient ceramic tradition. What resulted was a new, community-wide pottery movement that has gained international attention. The ceramic artists he inspired in the village of Mata Ortiz created an innovative, consistent visual language that was distinct from that of their predecessors or contemporaries while incorporating some similar, recognizably Southwestern decorative and symbolic elements. The resulting ceramic style reflects a conscious effort at self-determination, articulating the identity of a new polity but in visual terms that would be accessible to and understandable throughout the region; those working in this style are now moving beyond traditional forms to experiment with new pottery designs and other media. In this case there are no Southwestern groups who make specific claim to Casas Grandes, apart from the recognition that it falls within the general culture region; it is an instance of inspiration in which Indigenous peoples derived direct benefit, initially creating beautiful and highly desirable replicas of ceramic designs associated with earlier (and likely unrelated), and then expanding in new artistic directions.

— adopted from “’Do Not Do Unto Others...’: Cultural Misrecognition and the Harms of Appropriation in an Open-Source World” by George P. Nicholas and Alison Wylie. In Appropriating the Past: Philosophical Perspectives on Archaeological Practice, edited by Robin Coningham and Geoffrey Scarre, Cambridge University Press (in press).

Photograph by Richard Culatta [CC BY 2.5], via Wikimedia Commons


Additional Reading

Isaac, Gwyneira. 2011. Whose Idea Was This?: Museums, Replicas, and the Reproduction of Knowledge. Current Anthropology 52(2): 211–233.

Maccallum Spencer Heath. 1978. Ceramic Revival in the Casas Grande Valley. The Masterkey 52(2): 44-53.

Medina, Jose F. 2008. The Globalization of Indigenous Art: The Case of Mata Ortiz Pottery

Pearlstone, Zena. 2000. Mail-Order “Katsinam” and the Issue of Authenticity. Journal of the Southwest 42(4): 800-832.

Townsend, Richard, F. (editor). 2005. Casas Grandes and the Ceramic Art of the Ancient Southwest. Art Institute of Chicago and Yale University Press, New Haven.


 The Appropriation (?) of the Month feature, written by IPinCH team members, highlights examples of uses of intellectual property that might be considered appropriations.