Max Early

Laguna Pueblo

Curator Max Early received his MFA in Creative Writing (Poetry) from the Institute of American Indian Arts, Santa Fe, in 2020. He is a published poet and established potter from Laguna Pueblo.


Tribal Affiliations:

Artwork Affiliations:

Max chose the following for the Grounded in Clay exhibit:

Pueblo Pardo jar

Arroh-a-och | Laguna
Storage jar
c. 1870–80
Clay and paint
20¼ x 24½ in. (51.4 x 62.2 cm)
Collection School for Advanced Research

The Paragon of Arroh-a-och

As a potter and poet, I have been inspired by this immense olla made by Arroh-a-och. Arroh-a-och lived in the village of Paguate, New Mexico, where I reside as well. She was a Laguna Pueblo potter. I was curious to discover more about her and her pottery. The painted designs on the olla are clearly of Zuni Pueblo origin. Why would a Laguna Pueblo potter replicate Zuni designs unless the potter was part Zuni herself? It is probable that Arroh-a-och was of the Laguna Coyote Clan. The Laguna Coyote Clan is said to have come from Zuni Pueblo. This clan may have derived from a group of Zuni immigrants arriving at Laguna, or possibly a few Zuni Coyote Clan sisters married at Laguna. With no written record of their arrivals, this clan lineage is expressed only through Laguna orality. However, in all practical scenarios, I surmise that Arroh-a-och was of Laguna and Zuni Pueblo descent.

When the collector Kenneth Chapman purchased the jar in 1928 from Locario Chavez, Chapman interviewed Locario and his father, John. Locario stated that the olla had been made for his grandmother. John Chavez, seventy years old at the time, remembered the jar from his childhood and said that he knew the potter. Chapman recorded her name as both Arroh-a-och and Oharoch. This is the only documented information about the jar and the potter.¹

There are no words or phrases that begin with an “oh” sound in the Laguna Keres language. This eliminates the name Oharoch. The closest words I found similar to Arroh-a-och are aruu-sa (rice) and ara-wagu (apricot). Sometimes the “a” sound, as in “father,” is heard as an “o” sound, as in “open,” or as a “u” sound, as in “flu.” Laguna Keres is a tonal language. If Chapman was tone-deaf, he would not have heard the subtlety of such whispered sounds as “sh” or “tra” in Laguna Keres. The spelling of Oharoch could be his misinterpretation of the name U-shraatra, meaning “sun.”

In any case, there are several ollas attributed to Arroh-a-och in museums across the country. I use the gender pronouns “she,” “her,” and “hers” when referring to Arroh-a-och. She was a two spirit. This is an alternative gender in various Native American cultures. At Laguna, a transgender female, or k’ukwi-mu, wore women’s attire and performed tasks traditionally assumed by women, such as grinding corn and making pottery. K’u-kwi-mu is a compound word that translates as “woman-sister-brother,” from k’u (woman), a-kwi (the male term for “sister”), and dyu-mu (the male term for “brother”). In Laguna Keres, different terms are used for kinship relations based on one’s gender. The excellence of her work distinguishes Arroh-a-och as one of the most talented potters at Laguna Pueblo.

I decided to illustrate this masterpiece of Arroha-och by writing an ekphrastic poem of imagery and narrative—in other words, to show the action of the potter as she paints on her unfired clay canvas. My poem, “Flowers in the Deer’s House,” is an interpretation of real and imagined scenes that explore and amplify the meaning of design, theme, and creative process by transforming the visual into written and verbal form.

Flowers in the Deer’s House

Painted black line encircles damp earth olla,
opening a subtle path to skyward realms
as cirrus clouds spiral nearby rainbows.

Light and shadow crosshatch distant rains.
Sound of shock waves slice like knives,
thunder to arouse Tsits-shruwi.

The horned water serpent ribbons
through winds of red leaves and feathers,
while rainbirds stream into dark caverns.

Water streaks down a stalactite
as she applies a stroke of black paint
to the slipped white clay surface:

with curves, hooks, and pointed beaks,
she bends willow to form a hoop.
A drumstick tied with yucca fiber.

Sonic voice of water drum ripples,
as buds of menodora and dalea
bloom on adobe floors and walls.

Outside the house of florescence,
burnished moon of ancient pursuit halos
night’s sky, when stellar trail glistens north.

Cosmic starflower guides her journey
to a trio of bucks standing silent,
in the deer’s home at winter solstice—

As she sketches the eyes of the deer,
she whispers a blessing of fortuity
to enhance her man’s chances of game.

From mouth to slender neck to mid-body,
she paints reddish-brown line to an arrow-
tipped heart above a belly of bay-ya.

She exhales as she exits the opening
of thoughts and prayers infused on clay:
prosperous hunt, abundant rain, long life.

Unfired masterpiece nestles in her lap.
She lays her yucca brush aside to rest
and daydreams of her distant relatives—

Her fingers roll the silver pearl necklace
she wears night and day. A gift from her father
when her mother returned to Laguna.

In the days of horse and wagon trails,
a child from the Zuni Coyote Clan.
She treasures designs from her father’s kin.

Into the fired grand olla she pours
cascades of blue from bear-grass baskets.
Storing shelled corn for winter sustenance.

¹Dwight P. Lanmon, “Pueblo Man-Woman Potters and the Pottery Made by the Laguna Man-Woman, Arroh-a-och,” American Indian Art Magazine, vol. 31, no. 1, Winter 2005, pp. 72–85.