The objects we fill our home with (beyond practical pieces, like our well-worn sectional or the perfectly sized coffee table) mean much more than aesthetically-pleasing décor. They can possess familial history and cultural value, or they might be a reminder of an experience you want to remember, whether they're passed down through generations or acquired independently.
That's why we're especially drawn to the significance of the Native American wedding vase, which has been used as part of traditional unity ceremonies for centuries. Originating among the Southwestern Navajo, Pueblo, and Hopi Nations, the tradition has been embraced by Cherokee tribes in the Southeast and Mexico. "The wedding vase appears to have developed among the Tewa speaking Pueblos of New Mexico, primarily at Santa Clara Pueblo and became very popular and is now made by many tribes throughout the country," explains Tony Chavarria, Curator of Ethnology at the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture/Laboratory of Anthropology in Santa Fe, New Mexico.
Meet the Expert
Tony Chavarria is Curator of Ethnology at the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture/Laboratory of Anthropology in Santa Fe, New Mexico.
The Meaning of Clay in Native American Ceramics
Clay has symbolized life for centuries. Creation stories in both the Bible and the Quran speak of humans being shaped from clay. "For Pueblo Indians," says Chavarria, "pottery and clay are seen as manifestations of the Earth and gifts of the Earth Mother."
Design of the Wedding Vase
Native American wedding vases reflect each tribe's unique artistic techniques and cultural folklore, while compositions of local clays influence their colors. "Often, the carved or painted decoration will have specific meaning to their community," Chavarria says. Despite this diversity, the shape of the wedding vase is universal.
The vase features an ovoid body and a graceful double neck, and two symmetrical spouts out of the top where handles are typically attached. "The spouts represent the couple becoming joined and the handle links them together," says Chavarria. The spouts are joined together by a rounded looped handle, which represents the bridge that joins two lives. According to Kachina House, a Sedona, Arizona-based shop selling pottery and crafts by Indigenous artists, the space created between the necks and handle symbolize the circle of life.
The body is intricately hand etched with cultural depictions and artistic geometric designs. Most often, the wedding vase is created using paddle stamping or horsehair pottery techniques. The handle can also feature decorative coils.
About the Native American Unity Ceremony
Prior to the ceremony, an elixir made of sweet nectar and holy water linking the couple together for eternity is prepared by a medicine man, according to a Kachina House blog post. The mixture also blesses them with a bond that transcends the afterlife. The groom's parents typically assume this role now, preparing tea before the ceremony, while some couples simply choose to drink water.
During the ceremony, the couple each take a sip of water from the vase before simultaneously drinking from its double spout—a symbol of joining two separate lives into one. Great blessings are believed to come to those who can manage this task without spilling a drop.
Where to Find Native American Ceramics
Authentic vases are difficult to find outside of tribal reservations. However, several respected vendors sell their wares online, including on Etsy. Elsewhere, the Palms Trading Company sells Navajo wedding vases, as well as vases by Hopi, Navajo, Santa Clara and Laguna Pueblo artists. There's also a large selection of wedding vases that can be found at Kachina House in Sedona, and Mission Del Rey, in El Paso, Texas.