Canku Ota - A Newsletter Celebrating Native America
October 7, 2000 - Issue 20

Quilts Vital to Native American Traditions
by Tracy Dingmann, Staff Writer The Albuquerque Journal

For some Plains Indians, handmade quilts have replaced buffalo robes in all-important tribal baby-naming ceremonies. The practice of standing on a buffalo robe during the baby-naming ceremony has given way to standing on a Morning Star quilt, an elaborately colored composition of an eight-point star.

And that's just one example of how important quilts have become to Native American societies in the 200 or so years since the art of quilting was introduced by European settlers.

The increasing significance of quilts to the social fabric of Native Americans is explored in "To Honor and Comfort: Native Quilting Traditions," an exhibition of 45 Native American quilts currently showing at the Museum of International Folk Art in Santa Fe. The exhibit was brought to Santa Fe by the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service.

Quilts are an underrated form of cultural expression for Native American tribes, says exhibit curator Marsha MacDowell, a professor of art history at Michigan State University and a curator of folk art at the Michigan State University Museum.

"One of the things I found surprising was how little the academic community knows of quilt-making in Native America," said MacDowell. "It was introduced as a European art, yet it quickly became an art form that Native people imbued with Native colors, symbols and meaning.

"To most scholars, it still had a taint of being European and most didn't think it worthy of study. Certainly the art market hasn't seized on it."

MacDowell has found in her research that quilts are used in virtually every Native American society.

The Hopi, like many other tribes, give newly named babies quilts as gifts. Many tribes honor veterans with gifts of quilts in red, white and blue.

To show how quilts have been co-opted into contemporary society, a portion of the exhibit deals with an annual ceremony among the Sioux and Assiniboine Indians of Brockton, Mont.

At the annual high school basketball tournament, a ceremony is held during which students give homemade quilts to people they admire.

"Very often you'll see a basketball in the middle of the quilt or in the corners, along with war bonnets and eagles," said MacDowell.

MacDowell and her husband, Michigan State English professor Kurt Dewhurst, curated the exhibit with the help of Michigan State and the National Museum of the American Indian.

The couple also wrote a companion book of the same name that is available at the Folk Art Museum and features illustrations of quilts, essays on contemporary and historical quilting traditions, images and meanings and profiles of quilters from across the country.

After all her research, MacDowell guesses that quilts are popular among Native Americans for the same reason they are popular for society at large.

"They serve the pretty basic function of keeping people warm and being soft to sit on. When they are handmade and given as gifts, they demonstrate a real human spirit of giving of oneself."

If you go:

WHAT: "To Honor and Comfort: Native Quilting Traditions"
WHEN: Open now through Dec. 31. Hours are 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays
WHERE: Museum of International Folk Art in Santa Fe
HOW MUCH: Museum admission is $1 on Sundays for New Mexico residents with ID, otherwise, $5 for adults and free for ages 16 and younger.

Call (505) 827-6463 for information

Native American Quilting Traditions
Native American Quilts



Canku Ota is a free Newsletter celebrating Native America, its traditions and accomplishments . We do not provide subscriber or visitor names to anyone. Some articles presented in Canku Ota may contain copyright material. We have received appropriate permissions for republishing any articles. Material appearing here is distributed without profit or monetary gain to those who have expressed an interest. This is in accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. section 107.

Canku Ota is a copyright of Vicki Lockard and Paul Barry.

The "Canku Ota - A Newsletter Celebrating Native America" web site and its design is the Copyright © 1999 of Paul C. Barry. All Rights Reserved.