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Native American Quilting Traditions
by Marsha MacDowell

     Quilting has a long history among Native Americans, but many quilters aren't aware of this rich tradition. Of the various North American Indian and Native Hawaiian art forms that resulted from contact withEuro-Americans, perhaps the least well known is quiltmaking.
     Quilts have been used in nearly every Native community for everyday purposes such as bedcoverings, shelter coverings, infants’ swing cradles, weather insulation, and providing a soft place to sit on the ground.  In some communities, quilts are also used to honor individuals, in ceremonies, and in a variety of activities that strengthen community life.

Origins of Native Quilting
     Quiltmaking in Native communities was first learned through contact with Euro-Americans. Traders, missionaries, government agents, and settlers all played roles in introducing the quilting fabrics, techniques.   It was not long before Native peoples began to pass on knowledge of skills they quickly honed within their own contexts for learning and began to use quilts for purposes unique to their own cultures. Today quilts are found in many Native communities, and within these communities they help create a strong sense of shared identity.
   
New Materials and Skills: Native Precedents
     Native peoples in the Hawaiian Islands and North America have many indigenous traditions of textile production and use; the materials and skills of quiltmaking had many precedents in these communities. When commercially-manufactured cloth and steel needles became available to native peoples, it was not surprising that, adept at similar craft forms, they quickly picked up quiltmaking.
     Native needleworkers continually combine or replace old materials and technologies with new.  Finger-woven animal pelt blankets have been replaced by wool blankets and quilts, hides replaced by cotton fabrics, and awls and needles replaced by sewing machines and rotary cutters.     

Hopi Baby Naming Ceremony
     Quilts have also been integrated into some of the beautiful Hopi ceremonies, most notably the baby naming ceremony.  After the grandmother's blessing, family and friends are invited to offer a blessing and give a name to the baby.  A gift of a quilt accompanies the offered name, and sometimes the baby almost disappears under a mountain of quilts if there are a lot of family and friends participating in this warm and endearing celebration.
     In earlier times the child's father or godfather wove a special blanket for the child and the child only received one wrapping.  Older women recall that as quilting became more prevalent in the Hopi villages a quilt was substituted for the blanket; by the early 1900s a gift of a quilt had replaced the handwoven blanket.  By the 1930s, accounts of the naming ceremony show that multiple gifts of quilts had become common practice.  Today, with the great popularity of quilting, it is not uncommon for a baby to be given eight or ten clan names and quilts, depending on how many relatives and friends choose to participate in the naming ritual.    

Honoring the Memory of Loved Ones
     Even at death, quilts sometimes play an important role.  They are given to pallbearers at funerals, wrapped around the body of deceased at burial, and distributed at memorial giveaways. Held approximately one year after a loved one has died, the traditional memorial feast and giveaway, may, when the sponsor can afford it, involve as many as 300 guests and the giving of up to 100 quilts.

Honoring Veterans
     Native peoples have always honored their warriors for their bravery and service to the community.  Today, service in military is highly respected and veterans usually play an honored role at pow wows across the country.  Among Plains Native peoples, quilts are used to honor veterans and returning servicemen and women at pow wows, giveaways, and Memorial Day ceremonies.  Often these quilts are red, white, and blue; sometimes they incorporate stars, an eagle and the bars and stripes of the American flag.

Basketball Star Quilt Giveaway Ceremonies
     For over thirty years, the Fort Peck Reservation-based Brockton High School boys’ and girls’ basketball teams have been hosting Star Quilt Giveaway Ceremonies at their annual district-wide tournaments.  Flanked by their parents or elders, each team member gives a quilt to someone they want to honor for their athleticism, good sportsmanship, or team spirit.  All present then join in a round dance.  As the only Native high school team in the district conference, the ceremony is unique and serves to share native values with the larger community.

Honoring Graduates
     In Sioux communities, quilts are given to graduating students at high school and college graduation ceremonies.  For instance, at the commencement ceremony at the St. Francis High School on the Rosebud Reservation in South Dakota, quilts, purchased by the school from local quilters, are placed on the chair of each senior.  Graduates carry or wear the quilts around their shoulders as they exit the ceremony.   At the receiving line following the ceremony, some graduates receive additional quilts given by family members and friends.
   
     Marsha MacDowell, a board member of The Alliance for American Quilts, is Curator of Folk Arts at the Michigan State University Museum and Professor, Department of Art and Art History, Michigan State University.  She was co-curator of a nationally touring exhibit of Native American quilts called "To Honor and Comfort: Native Quilting Traditions," a partnership project of Michigan State University Museum and the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of the American Indian. This article was adapted from exhibition materials.

Learning quilting within family contexts
     Most native quiltmakers of the twentieth century learned by first watching and then working side-by-side grandmothers, mothers, sisters, aunts, and other female members of their family and community.  Many quilters vividly recall these beginning experiences and the details of those lessons.   
     Whether or not quilting was done by and individual or a group depended on traditions specific to a tribe or community.  Today, quilt groups meet in senior centers, churches, schools, and community halls in native communities across the country.  These groups provide a forum to share quilting knowledge, build friendships, and maintain other cultural traditions such as language, stories, and food.

Quilting groups
     Whether or not quilting was done by and individual or a group depended on traditions specific to a tribe or community.  Today, quilt groups meet in senior centers, churches, schools, and community halls in native communities across the country.  These groups provide a forum to share quilting knowledge, build friendships, and maintain other cultural traditions such as language, stories, and food.

Quilting and  economic activity
     Quiltmaking has afforded many Natives, and in particular women, the opportunity to participate in economic activities. By selling quilts, women help support their families. In some Native communities quilt cooperatives have been established to help market quilts, but quilts are also sold at fundraising events to support activities and organizations of importance to Native communities.
One example is the annual August one-day Freedom School Quilt Auction which raises critical funds for the operation of the school on the Akwesasne/Mohawk Reservation in St. Regis, New York.    

A Tradition of exhibits
     Exhibitions of quilts have long been a part of native communities.  Quilts shows have been mounted in reservation buildings, in local agricultural fairs, and at pow wows.  Many times the shows were judged and prizes awarded to outstanding quilts.  Today quilts are exhibited in tribal museums and cultural centers.

A Native Aesthetic: Color, Materials, Design, and Meaning
     Native artists have adapted the beadwork, rug weaving, and basket weaving patterns of their cultural heritage or of their own experience into their quilts. Color choices often reflect the native quilter’s close spiritual ties to the natural world.  Many times native quilters, irrespective of their own tribal background, will select printed fabrics that incorporate Southwest or Pan-Indian imagery, such as eagles, running horses, or Navajo-rug like designs.
     Because most quilting was not shared inter-tribally, different tribes sometimes developed traditions of using a particular block pattern or quilting design. In certain communities, commonly-used quilt designs reflected designs or symbols important to that particular community.     
     For the quilting patterns used to stitch together the three layers of cloth -- top, batting, and backing -- many contemporary North American Indian textile artists favor stars, tipis, thunderbirds, pipes, war bonnets, and arrowheads, in addition to the clamshell, fan, or outline quilting used by non-native quilters.  The medicine wheel, an ancient religious symbol, is often used as a quilting pattern.

The Star Quilt Pattern
     One of the most common design motifs used by Plains tribal quilters is the Star, sometimes called the Morning Star.  The Morning Star, which appears in the east in early April, represents the direction from which spirits of the dead return to earth, thus symbolizing the link between the living and the dead. In quilts, the Star pattern is made by sewing many diamond-shaped pieces together.  Using alternating or contrasting colors and arranging the diamonds in different patterns, quilters creatively achieve a wide range of innovative variations on this basic design.

Hawaiian Flag Quilt

     In Hawaii, quilters expressed their allegiance to Hawaiian sovereignty by making quilts containing all or parts of the Hawaiian flag as well as symbols of Hawaiian royalty. The Hawaiian flag was first designed for King Kamehameha I prior to 1816; it was only taken down twice in history, when Queen Lili’uokalani was deposed in 1893 and when the islands were annexed to the United States in 1898.  Today the Hawaiian flag quilt continues to have meaning for many Native Hawaiians.

Quilts and Sharing Stories
     Quilting together provides a time for sharing stories; quilts can also convey, in pictorial images or symbols, information about people, places, or events.  Sometimes a quilt will visually depict a story of the history of a tribe or of a particular legend. When a quilt includes clan symbols or images of the coyote trickster, they can help prompt the telling of clan knowledge or the stories of the trickster.
     Until recently nearly all North American Indian quilters used scraps of old fabrics or tore up old clothing for their quilts; in Hawaii native quilters used scraps only for their patchwork-style work.  Stories often abound about the sources of and memories associated with these old fabrics.

A Gathering of Cultural Expression: Tradition and Creativity
     Native quilters produce work that is deeply rooted in their cultural heritage as well as reflects individual ideas or visions.  Some quilters closely adhere to the designs, materials, colors, and symbols associated with their specific tribal background; others use those of other Native and non-Native peoples.  Some use existing patterns; others create new designs.  In some instances, quilts are the pictorial record of community-based knowledge.  Quilt patterns carry names in Native language, designs are drawn from tribal sources, and colors are associated with clans or individuals.
     The reasons for quilting and the quilts they produce are as varied as the quilters themselves.  All quilts and quilters have stories to share; viewing the quilts and hearing the stories provides us with more knowledge and understanding of Native life in the twentieth century.

       
     Marsha MacDowell, a board member of The Alliance for American Quilts, is Curator of Folk Arts at the Michigan State University Museum and Professor, Department of Art and Art History, Michigan State University. She was co-curator of a nationally touring exhibit of Native American quilts called "To Honor and Comfort: Native Quilting Traditions," a partnership project of Michigan State University Museum and the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of the American Indian. This article was adapted from exhibition materials.