Native threads

Tradition, culture stitched together in quilts created by Haskell women

Painter Ponies Quilt, by Mildred (Fox) Jordt

Marilyn Russell unfurls a quilt at Tommaney Hall at Haskell Indian Nations University. Haskell is opening Native

Growing up on the Sicangu Lakota reservation at Rosebud, S.D., Marilyn Thunder Hawk always envied those who had star quilts.

The brightly colored blankets, with a symbolic star in the middle, were given as a way to honor friends and relatives.

“I’d see them, and only certain people would have them,” says Thunder Hawk, who lives in Lawrence. “I wondered why certain people were so special to have them.”

She still has never been on the receiving end of a star quilt, but now she can do something she says is even better – she can make the quilts herself.

“It helps a person become self-actualized,” she says. “If you make one, it makes you feel special, too.”

That sort of symbolism, both in giving quilts and the images on the works themselves, is at the center of a new exhibit at Haskell Indian Nations University. “Native Threads,” a set of 12 quilts by five American Indian women with connections to Haskell, was organized by the Kansas Arts Commission and the Mid-America Arts Alliance.

The show opened this week and runs through Oct. 5. This is the second stop for the quilts, which are touring Kansas this year.

While many people may think of quilts as a way to keep warm, and not a form of art, Llewellyn Crain, director of the arts commission, says that’s simply not the case.

“We showcase master artists, living or dead,” Crain says, “We just thought it was a great way to showcase the works of living Kansas artists who aren’t normally part of the mainstream artistic community.”

Joni Murphy, the Haskell English department faculty member who curated the show, says it usually just takes a single glance at one of these quilts to convince someone quilting is a form of art.

“I believe you do have to have people look at the beauty in the work, not just the functional basis,” says Murphy, who is Muscogee Creek.

Symbolic art

The quilts are ripe with symbolism from tribal traditions.

An eagle represents courage, wisdom and enduring strength. Turtles represent fertility and patience. The colors red, yellow white and black represent the four directions and various races of people.

And the stars that are found on many of the quilts represent the morning star, the star of David, promise, rebirth and renewal, depending on your background.

It is those star quilts that especially have captured the attention of Kepsey Fixico of Lawrence, a Muscogee Creek who has quilted for years but only has done the star varieties for the past five years.

“They’re used for something special, like a wedding, when you want to honor somebody,” Fixico says.

Both Fixico and Thunder Hawk say the star quilt is the most difficult design to make. They’ve taught a group of Haskell students how to sew them – by hand – every year since 2004.

“We’re taught to give to the next generation, and to keep the tradition alive,” Fixico says. “Things are so quick and easy today if you go to the store. It takes a lot of energy, but they’re made with love.”

Fixico, who grew up sewing sock dolls and doll clothes, says it takes her about four or five months to make a star quilt if she works nonstop on it.

“When I sit down to quilt,” she says, “it just soothes my soul.”

Tribal traditions

Murphy, the show’s curator, says the process of making quilts – the time when quilters sit together and talk – is an important part of the tradition.

“It’s a time they get together and share stories,” she says. “It’s like any quilting group. They pass down traditions and pass down tribal stories. They gossip and tell funny stories.”

And she likes the way the quilts blend cultures.

“It’s traditional symbolism and American folk art coming together,” she says. “I like the way our cultures have melded.”

Thunder Hawk, who moved from her reservation to Dallas when she was 10, is among those who worries that traditional quilting might disappear in future generations.

“It’s really helped me to stay attached to my cultural ties,” she says.