Used by permission from the Arizona Historical Society
The clouds gathered, and the skies wept when Ida Redbird, master potter of the Maricopa Tribe, died August 10, 1971 in Sacaton, Arizona.
“She had just finished shaping some pots and had put them in the sun to dry,” recalled her brother Ernest Bill, who lived across the street from Ida Redbird’s Gila River Indian Reservation home. “Then she went to lie down on the bed under the tree. The tree just broke,” he said, although there was no wind at the time. A large branch fell on her and she was killed. Soon after she died, the storm began. Bill’s wife, listening as he recounted the events of that day, quietly said, “Old people believe there will always be a storm when a person dies. Something happens in the sky.”
It was not unusual for Ida Redbird to be outside working on her pots, although an air-conditioned workroom was available to her. Friends at the Heard Museum in Phoenix recounted the times she spurned the indoor facilities while teaching children’s potting classes, preferring to take her students and their clay to a place on the patio shaded by a cluster of palm trees. The tamarisk tree that had shaded Ida in the late afternoon when she died was an old friend, almost as old as her 79 years. “Ida was always outside under that tree with her pottery,” her brother said. “Her children used to tell her to come inside, but she always wanted to be outside.” Not long before she died, she told her brother, “I might just end my life under that tree.” … that’s the way it is with old people,” Bill said. “They have ways of understanding.”
Ida Redbird was born March 15, 1892, in Laveen on the Gila River Reservation where she spent almost all her life. Despite the fact that she lived and died in one small geographic area, her artistic influence was felt in ever-widening circles. Her pottery was known nationally and collected by many prominent people and museums. News of her death was carried by newspapers as far away as Washington, D.C., and editorials were written in her memory.
Anna P. Kopta, widow of the late Arizona sculptor Emery Kopta and a former teacher at the Phoenix Indian School, had Ida Redbird as a student. She recalled that Mrs. Redbird was “a good student … shy but very serious in all her activities…Like other Maricopa women, Ida learned early to make pottery,” Mrs. Kopta said. “Ida not only created loveliness, but stimulated other women of the Maricopa to strive to improve their wares,” Mrs. Kopta said. “The movement that she began is still moving forward. From the skill and vision of this talented woman, Maricopa potters are reaping a rich reward.”
In the mid-1930s, Ida Redbird became well known for her role in the effort to raise the prices paid to the Maricopa potters. In those early days, Ida earned five cents each for the small ollas she sold to dealers in Los Angeles. Even in the Great Depression that was extremely low pay, considering the time and work involved in the production of pottery, noted Mary L. Fernald, in her 1973 master’s thesis for the Arizona State University Department of Anthropology.
Ida Redbird also played a major role in the revival of Maricopa pottery during the late 1930s. Elizabeth Hart, a home extension agent with the United States Indian Service, had encouraged potters to ask more for their wares and to accept ideas for improving their pottery. Ida was one of the first to adopt Miss Hart’s ideas, and many of the other Maricopa potters followed her lead. In 1938, her fellow potters elected Ida Redbird as the first president of the Maricopa Pottery Makers Association, an organization formed to find a better way of marketing the members’ wares.
Even before Ida Redbird’s name became synonymous with Indian art, she was active in the preservation of her people’s history and culture. In the late 1920s, she did translations for Leslie Spier, who was doing research for a book on the Yuman people living along the Gila River.
“Altogether an exceptional woman,” was how Spier described Ida Redbird in the preface to her book, Yuman Tribes of the Gila River. “Much of my success was due to her understanding and sympathy with my purpose and to her enterprise in voluntarily ferreting out information.”
Ida Redbird was an articulate woman who liked to talk about her art. But her modesty compelled her to note that fellow potter Mary Joan was really the best potter. Ida conceded that she might be better known, but it was only because she “talked too much,” she said. Nonetheless, it was this trait, that drew people to her, fostering a greater understanding of her art, friends noted. “One cannot think of Indian pottery without thinking of Ida,” said Paul Huldermann, founder of the Scottsdale National Indian Arts Exhibition. “In her heyday she was outstanding. And she’s especially noteworthy historically and anthropologically since she used the paddle and anvil method of the ancient Hohokams rather than the coiling method of pot making.” She was truly worthy of her title, master potter of the Maricopas, said Tom Cain, Heard Museum curator.