When I was a little kid, my sister and I were prepared for our annual visit to my grandparents’ house with one very intense lecture. It went a little something like this:
Don’t touch the pots.
Don’t even LOOK at the pots.
DO NOT. BREAK. THE POTS.
My grandfather was a professor, and one of his many areas of study was Native American history. Hailing (partially) from the Muscogee (Creek) tribe of Oklahoma, he had a vested interest. For decades he had painted traditional Muscogee designs onto pottery, and the result was that every horizontal space in his house was covered in one-of-a-kind and highly breakable pots, a nightmare for my parents and their curious, hyper daughters.
As an enthusiastic collector of indigenous artifacts, Pops had decided early on that pottery, being one of the sturdier forms of culture, was an excellent way to record Muscogee (Creek) patterns and design. The bookshelves all over his house were crammed three books deep with references for this (and many other) undertakings.
He researched designs and patterns as well as the stories and beliefs behind them, and then transcribed them onto pots carefully in pencil. He then painted delicately between the lines in black and burnt orange, glazing each one in hopes that it would last longer than he did—a record of what he was and what he knew, as well as those who came before him. Culture keepers like him took responsibility for putting patterns and design into a form that time couldn’t touch,* at least for a while.
Pops never dreamed he would live in the era of the internet. (He still does, in fact. He’s 96.) And in the era of the internet, designers like me, and those who care about design, have a responsibility to preserve it—each tribe, and all their visual and design differences. If you believe, like many in the Iroquois Nation, that we have a responsibility to think of those seven generations behind us, then now is the time to begin.
If you found these thoughts at all interesting, you should read the (somewhat lengthy) op-ed that inspired it on the Eurocentric state of design education in America.
*The pots HAVE fared well with time. I never broke one; nor did my sister. We can’t say the same for my Dad, who took out a large decorative bowl with the back of the laundry room door one Christmas. :)
—Jo Layne, @jo_layne