Nampeyo of Hano was born around 1856 in the First Mesa village of Hano. Hano is a newer Hopi village having been founded about 1700 in the aftermath of the 1680 Pueblo Revolt. The Hopi had sent recruiters into the Rio Grande pueblos area to find Tewa warriors willing to move to Hopi (away from the hated Spanish) with their families. Hano was established as a place for those Tewa families to live at the foot of the trail ascending First Mesa.
Nampeyo's mother was White Corn of the Tewa Corn Clan. Her father was Quootsva of the Hopi Snake Clan. According to tradition, she was raised in the Tewa Corn Clan at Hano. She and her brothers Tom Polacca, Kano and Patuntupi never went to school. The Hopi language in those days was not yet a written language and she never learned to write English. She learned the basics of the Hopi art of pottery making from her father's mother and gathered pointers from other experienced Tewa and Walpi potters.
By 1881 she'd already earned a reputation as one of Hopi's finest potters. Up until then most of her pottery was based on the styles and designs of Walpi. She married Lesou, her second husband, in 1878. Annie, their first daughter, was born in 1884, William Lesso in 1893, Nellie in 1896, Wesley in 1899 and Fannie in 1900.
There is an oft-repeated story that Lesou was employed by J. Walter Fewkes during his excavation of the ruins of Sikyátki in 1895 and it was there that the ancient Sikyátki designs and pottery styles were found. However, Sikyátki styles and designs had been on the market for ten to fifteen years and were already becoming known as "revival" pottery. Other research has shown that Lesou never worked for Fewkes. About 1880 anthropologist Alexander Stephen came to Keams Canyon and began to investigate the area. He and trader Thomas Keam began encouraging the potters of Walpi and Hano to make pottery with designs found among the ruins of Awatovi and Sikyátki, where the ground was profusely littered with pot shards. Nampeyo copied those designs on paper and later incorporated many of them into her pottery decoration. She also figured out the style of pottery that each of those designs had been painted on and by the late 1890's she'd become famous for her work. She also studied the intricacies of the ancient pot shards and searched out the various clays used to produce and decorate them. She worked out the firing techniques used by the ancients to produce the high-fired shards that she was finding laying all over the ground.
Nampeyo and her family traveled to Chicago in 1898 and showed her pottery to the world. Between 1905 and 1907 she was the Fred Harvey "Artist in Residence" at the Grand Canyon Lodge. She returned to Chicago in 1910 to exhibit her work at the United States Land and Irrigation Exposition.
In the end it's not that Nampeyo invented pottery or that she was self-taught, it's that she was the right person in the right place at the right time to revive the ancient shapes and designs. She deviated slightly from the especially isolated and conservative Hopi norm in her assimilation and adaptation of these ancient styles and designs. Nampeyo might not have begun the movement now known as Sikyátki Revival but she became its most famous practitioner and almost single-handedly ignited the renaissance of Hopi pottery making at the turn of the 20th century.
Nampeyo was diagnosed with trachoma in her early years and was essentially blind for the last 20 years of her life. However, she was so adept at making her pots that blindness didn't slow her down much and didn't hurt the quality of her pots in any way. She did have other members of her family do the painting for her, especially her youngest daughter Fannie. Nampeyo died in 1942, leaving behind more than 40 direct descendants to carry on the tradition she began.
Photo of Nampeyo is in the Public Domain of the United States.