When Brooke Rice sat around the fire watching the corn, beans, sassafras tea, and milkweed soup simmering in each handmade pot, it’s a moment she knew she’d remember for years to come.
“Knowing that that pot came from the earth, the fire’s from the earth and then the food that we grew was from the earth, it was just a very powerful moment to see those pots sitting around a fire,” she said.
On May 21, Rice ventured down to Wyandot, Oklahoma, to participate in an intensive eight-day workshop where she, along with three Kahnawa’kehró:non women – Kahionwinehshon Phillips, Kaiewate Jacobs, and Kanerahtakwas Deom – learned the entire process of making traditional clay cooking pots.
As a food and seed enthusiast, Rice has been invested in re-learning and reconnecting with traditional foodways and practices that are rooted in Haudenosaunee culture.
Aside from learning pottery, the group of women were involved in all the steps before and after making the vessels – stacking wood, making a fire, and crafting tools from animal bones, horns, or wood, to shape and shine the pots.
They also made ceremonial pipes, water drums, and hair combs crafted from bull horns.
The quad of women journeyed for about an hour-and-a-half drive from Springfield, Missouri, where they landed, and arrived in Wyandot, Oklahoma, to meet with Richard Zane Smith, the man behind the craft and artistry who taught the workshop.
Right next to his house was the studio. One side was all woodwork – stashed with everything you’d need to shave and make arrows. And on the other side was the workshop to make pottery.
Overlooking endless acres of greenery, the studio was covered wall to wall with old photographs, and it was home to Zane Smith’s collections – turtle paws, bear paws, and shards of pottery were among them.
“You can see that he’s like a man of the land. He just loves to collect these little trinkets,” said Rice of Smith, who is Wendat.
His openness and willingness to share his knowledge was what stood out to Phillips most. “What I really loved about him was there was no gatekeeping, he would motivate you to do the best that you can,” said Phillips, who’s a language teacher at Akwesasne Freedom School, and a first-language speaker. “It opened my eyes to how I should teach,” she added.
“That humbleness from him and that encouragement from him, that was a highlight. He was like a really awesome teacher and he made every experience really, really good,” said Phillips.
They made their own clay, sifted through it, and mixed it with temper following a precise ratio. Coiling and drying the pots – first in the shade, then in the sun – shaping and shining them with a flat smooth stone or a seashell, and finally firing them overnight, took about six days.
“It’s a really intense, immersive process. And a lot of work,” said Rice. “It was almost like a lot of alchemy, transforming earth into a pot,” she said. “I thought it was just full circle to be able to honour the seeds and be able to just cook traditionally, outside, in a fire, in clay. And it tastes so much different.”
Each of the women made a pot using what they called the “grandmothering pot method” – as a nod to intergenerational learning – which involves using a pot as a mould for a new one.
“This trip, it just made me realize that I really rely on the colonized world,” said Phillips. “This full cycle of getting our materials from the earth, and eventually they will go back to the earth too, that’s how we’re supposed to be living,” said Phillips. “We don’t need colonialism, we don’t need Walmart. We don’t need all these things that we think we need to rely on. It was a very eye-opening experience.”
Being self-reliant and using the land from the first until the final step of preparing food is a feeling that stuck with Phillips. “There’s a lot of pride in that,” she said.
Equally important to the learning experience was the prospect of bringing back all the knowledge to Kahnawake, Rice said. She plans to organize a community event to showcase each of their works and hopes to come together with the group from Akwesasne who attended the same workshop to share the knowledge across communities.
After days of crafting, shaping, polishing – and, of course, patiently waiting between each step – the pots were ready to use, save one last final step: each pot was oiled up with bear grease, which helps it hold liquid, before it was filled with food and placed on the fire.
As the foods in each pot started to bubble, Rice watched the pots blacken from the soot, and she saw the culmination of the days-long process come to fruition, at last.
“This experience, this moment right here is probably what our ancestors saw through their eyes – sitting around a fire watching the food cook in those exact pots,” said Rice.
“It’s something we’ve always done. That was our means of cooking, that was our means of storing seed. And with all this remembering, and everyone starting to get back into the gardens, it was just always a dream to be able to come full circle,” said Rice.