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Canku Ota

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(Many Paths)

An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America


September 22, 2001 - Issue 45


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Carrying the Flame
American Indian quilter keeps tradition alive with blankets rich in symbolism


 by Dorreen Yellow Bird Grand Forks Herald Staff Writer-September 14, 2001

Angeline Alberts' house on the Spirit Lake reservation in Fort Totten, N.D., the humming of the sewing machine is like a lullaby to her grandchildren who live with her. The soft and steady clickety clickety never seems to stop.

Alberts, 62, is a master quilter.

That skill was handed down from her mother, Josephine Ross Dunn, who learned from her mother, Emma Left Bear. For their family, it is more than a learned skill -- it is their way of life and part of the culture.

The culture dictates the reasons for making a star blanket. When Alberts started on her very first star blanket, she chose the materials and cut out the diamonds for the star. As she sat trying to decide what color to make the background, her grandfather, John Left Bear, came into the house.

"He wanted to know who I was making the star blanket for." It wasn't for anyone in particular, she told him and she didn't think much about it and just kept sewing, she said.

Sometime later, she heard reports that a family member had been killed in Vietnam. Left Bear told her: "That's what you were making those blankets for. Now you finish the blankets and give them to his mother." Alberts said you don't just make star blankets so you'll have them.

True meaning
The culture also dictates the design of the star blankets. Most of the quilts Alberts designs and assembles are made with the sunburst pattern, although, at times, she may embed images of the Sacred Pipe, Buffalo or the Medicine Wheel in her blankets. For those star blankets, she uses the traditional colors, which represent the four directions.

The colors of the four directions are black or blue for the West, red for the North, yellow for the East and white for the South. The Medicine Wheel is a circle design divided into sections representing the four directions and using the traditional colors.

The meaning of the starburst pattern is encompassing. It can mean everything from sadness to great happiness. It doesn't represent just one thing, she said. One of the most common meanings is that the star represents people of all races: black, white, yellow and red. The sun also represents the Creator or God, she said.

Quilt making is a skill that American Indian people learned from settlers or pioneers who came to their area. When cloth and blankets were introduced, they began making quilts, too. They put their own handprint to the quilt by using American Indian designs, Alberts said.

The old way
Alberts doesn't use the new method of putting diamonds together. With that method, the seamstress sews strips together and then cuts the diamonds. Most quilters believe this method is faster. Alberts cuts each diamond individually from a cardboard pattern and sews all the diamonds together. The star blankets are stronger if they are cut this way, Alberts said. With different diamond sizes, she can make star blankets from king- to baby blanket-size. It takes five diamonds across the bottom of each point to make the most common bed size, she said.

To complete the star blanket, she sometimes quilts the top, lining and backing in about a half a day by machine. "To quilt by hand, takes me about two days because I have other things to do in the household. Usually, I will do household work rather than sit down and sew in the evening," Alberts said.

In an average year, especially since she hasn't been working, she might make 60 star blankets. She currently is working on 36 quilts for a family memorial ceremony in October.

"A year after the loved one leaves the family, we have to give something to thank the people for their help," she said. The star blankets she is making for this family will be donated during the memorial ceremony. After that year, they believe, the spirit of the person leaves the earth forever.

She did put those memorial quilts aside to complete eight star blankets for a family naming ceremony during the Fort Totten Day Celebration in August.

For Alberts, sewing star blankets is relaxing and makes her feel good that she is helping her family and community.

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  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 © 2000, 2001 of Vicki Lockard and Paul Barry.


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