Hudson, a contemporary quilt ledger artist from Sheep Springs,
N.M. tells of her quilt work at the Pagosa Springs History
Museum on May 23.
Susan Hudson, a member of the Kinyaa'a'anii or Towering House
clan of the Navajo Nation, is a rising star on the Indian arts and
crafts scene. Her unusual quilt designs are capturing the attention
of artists, textile collectors, and art show judges alike, winning
her top honors at a number of prestigious shows.
One of Hudson's award-winning quilts, entitled "Stars Among
the Shunkaa Wakan," features a luminous Plains-style star,
one side appliqued in dazzling browns and yellows representing day,
and the other side in vibrant and varying shades of blue representing
night. Encircling the star, brightly colored ponies gallop proudly
across a hand-embroidered ledger book page featuring the names of
Hudson's own ancestors and those who endured the Navajo's Long Walk
to the Bosque Redondo in 1864.
Quilt making is an art form that was introduced to tribes during
the nineteenth century by missionaries, teachers, and traders. Over
the past century, however, quilts have become expressive canvases
for illustrating native culture, symbolism, and ideology. By combining
symbols of her own Navajo legacy with the Plains patterns and motifs
within her designs, Hudson's quilts make a powerful statement about
the shared experiences of many Native American communities. Each
is a work of art that embodies history, cultural perseverance, pride,
Hudson, a descendent of the prominent leader Nabona, and grandniece
of Master Weaver Mary Ann Foster, says she is not a natural born
artist. "I may have a Master Weaver in my family," she laughs, "but
I can't weave, draw, paint or make jewelry. I was blessed with creative
hands for sewing."
Hudson with 'Stars Among the Shunkaa Wakan'
Hudson herself was born and raised in East Los Angeles. Times
were tough for her family, so to help defray costs, her grandmother
made the family's clothes. There was no money for a sewing machine,
so her grandmother taught Hudson to sew by hand. She was nine years
old when she learned to quilt.
Since then, she has raised a substantial family of her own and,
while rearing her children, made numerous quilts for gifts, for
powwow giveaways, and to make extra money for the family. The mother
of four daughters and the grandmother of nine, she often worked
two jobs at a time in order to make ends meet. For the past 15 years
she worked as a Lead Travel Auditor for the Marine Corps and also
as a Barista at Starbucks.
Interestingly, she also honed her skills in martial arts. As
a student of famed Judo Master Hayward Nishioka, she earned a Black
Belt and became a two-time National Judo Champion. While she was
still competing, Nishioka introduced her to another Native American
Judo champion: Ben Nighthorse Campbell, who in 1964 was a member
of the U.S. Olympic Judo Team. The two became close friends.
Campbell, a Northern Cheyenne who went on to become a U.S. senator
and a jeweler, says that, as it happens, he already knew Hudson's
family. "When it comes to judo, Susan was a great competitor, and
she is also an amazing quilter. I believe she is one of the best
in the nation -- just incredibly talented. We used to go up to Lame
Deer [Montana] every year for the 4th of July powwow and I would
always see her family there. Traditional crafts keep our stories
alive. Her aunt is a traditional weaver, and Susan is carrying on
of the Mountain Star'
Hudson, who also has a keen interest in native history, began
formulating ideas that would eventually turn into her ledger quilt
designs. "I became very interested in the Plains star quilt," she
remembers. "I have always admired the Plains tribes and I wanted
to somehow try to turn the tragic part of their history into a tool
"Horses are another cultural element that Navajos and Plains
Indians share," she points out. "They were our means of transportation.
We also used braided horse hair for ropes and other things, and
horses play a large role in the Navajo Creation stories."
Hudson finally began putting the quilt together, working on
it every spare moment in between jobs and after work. It took her
eight months to do the sewing, and several more months just to decide
on the placement of the figures.
Hudson says she loves rich colors that lend depth and dimension.
In the completed piece, the horses change colors as they move across
the quilt. "Our warriors are always watching over us," she says.
The colors in the star are also the same colors she used in the
horses, reminding us that we are all connected, and that the Creator
too, is watching over us.
She explains that her inspiration for the ledger book design
was inspired by historic Plains ledger book paintings. For 19th-century
Plains artists, ledger books, obtained the in trade, or as loot
taken after a skirmish with the cavalry or a raid, became an inexpensive
medium. Ledger drawings often depicted battles and acts of heroism.
After the tribes were forced onto reservations, Plains artists added
depictions of daily life, chronicling the social and cultural changes
they were undergoing.
"I've always admired ledger art, so I was challenged to make
a ledger quilt that I could be proud of and people would like,"
She first entered her quilts in a show at a crafts fair in Shiprock
in 1992. She won first place. Next she entered them in the 1993
Navajo Fair, and won second place. She then set her sights on the
Heard Museum show. Since those first competitions, wherever she
has gone, her designs and craft work speaks to the judges.
"By combining star quilt designs with ledger book art she is
making a breakthrough in Indian art," says Campbell. "Her dedication
is paying off, as proven by her recent impressive showings in some
of Native America's toughest juried shows."
Her ledger quilt has taken four first place awards: at the Navajo
Nation Fair; the Gallup Intertribal Ceremonies; the Museum of Man
in San Diego; and at the Indian Arts and Crafts Association. She
also received two second place awards, at the Heard Museum and the
Eitelijorg Museum Indian Market and Festival in Indiana.
In 2011, Hudson was invited to show her quilts and give demonstrations
at the Heard Museum, at the Indian Arts and Crafts Association,
and at the National Museum of the American Indian. Her work has
also been the subject of articles in the Smithsonian's National
Museum of the American Indian magazine; Native People magazine,
and Cowboys and Indians magazine, among other publications.
Da' Ba' Hii Ba' Hane', or "Warrior Story," by Susan Hudson,
is on display at the Pagosa Springs History Museum this summer
as part of its "Honoring Our Past" quilt display. "Warrior
Story" was recently awarded Best of Show at the Eiteljorg
Indian Market and Festival in Indianapolis. The museum is
located at 96 Pagosa St. and is open daily.
One thing that bothers Hudson is the lack of recognition that
Indian quilters get. "In the quilting world, you almost never hear
about Native American quilt work," she points out. "You hear about
African-American quilters, Amish quilters, and other ethnic quilt
workers, but you never hear about Indian quilters. My grandmother
taught kids to weave, but, because of boarding schools and all,
my mother's generation lost a lot of their culture. We need to talk
to our elders and learn our history in order to bring the generations
back together. Younger people are now returning to our traditional
craft work, but they are also bringing in newer, more contemporary
ideas -- and that's a good thing."
"After the buffalo disappeared," Hudson continued, "our women
were forced to learn sewing in boarding schools. But look at what
we are doing with it now. We are taking it a step further and using
it to tell our own stories so we will never forget. I am grateful
for being taught this skill, and I'm grateful to my ancestors for
all they did. They were strong survivors. If they hadn't survived,
I wouldn't be here."