Photo: "Dignity Woman" statue in Chamberlain, SD.
These beautiful hand made quilts are tied directly to Plains Indian
mythology and Star Knowledge, and they are used in many sacred
ceremonies. They also take center stage in births, weddings, graduations,
funerals, retirements, and many other occasions, making the Star Quilt
important throughout Plains life.
Many different Indian Tribes all across America treasure Star Quilts these days.
Visit many Native American homes today and you're sure to see a Star Quilt or two. In the bedroom of course, there surely will be a stunning Star Quilt on the bed. Perhaps a Star Quilt will be draped across the back of a sofa in the front room, or over a chair. A baby quilt might be displayed on a wall. Over in the corner, there might even be a big powwow drum wrapped in an ancient, tattered Star Quilt. Old Star Quilts are never thrown away, but are always used, treasured and loved forever.
Morning Star Quilts represent the epitome of gift-giving on the Plains. To give a Star Quilt is to show the utmost respect, honor, and admiration to a person. It is given and received by both men and women. Star Quilts are also gifted away after certain special ceremonies. Other times, the central focus of a celebration is a huge generous giveaway where many beautiful Star Quilts will be offered to guests. The mother of a brand new baby is always overjoyed to receive a Star Quilt for her child. Birthdays, graduations, and all other celebrations of Native American life involve the gifting of a Star Quilt.
As a people, Native Americans are coming back to traditionally hand-crafted, 100% Indian-made products, and today the beautiful Star Quilt is outshining the Pendleton blanket.
Usually Native American Star Quilts are the size of coverlets or comforters, and they don't hang very far over the sides of a bed. Although there are many reasons why Native American Star Quilts aren't bigger, one is because these quilts are usually constructed for ceremonial purposes, such as "going on the hill" (vision quest) or another ceremony that requires an individual to be wrapped in a smaller size Star Quilt.
THE MORNING STAR by Florence Pulford
“Arise! Arise! Come see the morning star.” This centuries old call from the camp crier, as he rode through the Indian encampment, awakened the people to their day. For the Northern Plains Indians of Montana and the Dakotas, the sighting of the morning star still heralds a new beginning, a new day dawning.
The morning star! How appropriate that this symbol, which is so meaningful and constant in their lives, is the predominant theme of the Plains Indians quilters. For over a hundred years these artistic women have been creating colorful variations of the morning star in their quilt.
Long before quilting, the star pattern adorned animal skins used for tepees, clothing and shields. For ages the star has been depicted in the Plains Indians’ hide paintings, porcupine-quilled moccasins, leggings and clothing. With the traders’ introduction of beads, the star appeared in beaded form. Sinew, the ganglion from the backbone of a deer, buffalo or elk, made a strong, sturdy thread. Small, sharply pointed animal bones were used as the first needles. To this day, many Indian women prefer to use sinew for moccasins and beadwork though not in quilts, which, of course, are sewn with thread. The use of the morning star quilt designs is a continuation of their time honored art form.
These Native American women were excellent seamstresses long before the white people arrived. When the missionaries came in the 1800’s with their needles and calico-printed fabrics, quilting became an exciting new art medium for the Indian women. The calico materials were bright and pleasing to the women’s eyes. Here they could experiment with different textures and colors. They were not given an abundance of fabrics. Therefore, they diligently used cast off clothing and dyed flour sacks.
Being keen observes of nature and attuned to their environment, they soon recreated rainbows, storms, the seasons and the heavens in their quilts. Thus, the women turned this missionary-introduced craft into their own meaningful art form.
Quilts quickly took on deep significance in the cultural practices of the people. In early times they replaced buffalo robes in wrapping the dead. They were and are given in sympathy to the family of one who has died. They are given at births. Quilts honor friends and loved ones. For the newly married couple, the star quilt is considered an essential gift, bestowing upon them recognition and respect. They are used as altar cloths in churches and are hung in schools for graduation ceremonies. They are placed atop sweat lodges. Often, young men wrap themselves in a quilt while awaiting a Vision on some secluded high place. Always, they are a focal point in the Give Away. Probably the most contemporary use of the star quilt is found at Indian basketball tournaments. Many Indian basketball team members give star quilts to others participating in the tournament, including the announcers, referees, coaches and players from other teams. Some extremely creative quilts are seen at these games, since competition among the quilt makers to produce the most outstanding one is intense.
The mythology as well as the traditions of our Plains Indian tribes shows a religious observance of the stars and a reverence for all the heavenly bodies. The Milky Way is called the “Pathway of Departed Souls.” After death it is believed, by many Indian Americans, that the spirit of the deceased passes on this pathway to the Southern Star, the abiding place of the dead. It is thought that to the Stars the Great Spirit gave the power to watch over mortals on earth and impart to them spiritual blessings. The Star Quilt is given today as a token of this belief. Southwest Indian people call this “God’s Eye”. The morning star stands between darkness (ignorance) and light (knowledge). It leads to understanding. The Indian women would get up early, when the morning star came out, to tend the fires and cook breakfast. It was told that, if you saw the morning star, the creator had given you another day to live, and you would not die during that day whether gathering food, hunting or in battle.
It is customary at the death of a relative to enhance their glory and memorialize their name. The stricken family in the Sioux, Gros Ventre, Assiniboine and numerous other tribes had little pride in ownership of goods, but much pride in honorship; by giving of materials to relatives and very close friends who come to help them bury their loved ones. Things are less important than people. Property always flows back to those who let it flow forth and the grateful recipients praise the donor’s name before other people as having done well. Such are the inherited beliefs of many Indian Americans.
This explains the traditional memorial services held on the first anniversary of the death of a loved one in the family and their presentation of quilts to those who have been especially kind to the deceased.
Color is the essence in Indian quilting. They speak with color. Art is one of the few areas where Indian lives are not controlled by others. Helpless to pursue their former ways, quilting has allowed these women a rare freedom. A quilter delights in using color as a painter would her palette. The Indian quilter’s sense of color is unique, innovative and raucous. Quilting bees are now a part of their life. Quilting is an individual expression. Two distinctive qualities separate the Sioux quilt from any other quilt. The diamond, which in Sioux culture represents the four directions, is used to comprise every design, from the Morning Star Pattern to the less traditional eagle and buffalo patterns. The second quality which makes Sioux quilts spectacular are the color choices of the Sioux women. Many of the Sioux women without formal artistic training instinctively blend colors, making each quilt a breathtaking journey into the color spectrum. Many Lakota women have learned the art of quilting from their mothers and grandmothers take great pride in finishing star quilts to perfection, making them of heirloom quality.
Fabric has a special meaning in the Indian cultural and religious life. Swatches of cloth may be given at a Give Away, or tied to a post at the Sun Dance. They are often left for as long as the lodge stands. Their movement in the winds are believed to carry an individual’s prayers and supplications to Wakan Tanka, or Big Holy, or more commonly, the Great Spirit.
Let me share two old stories about Indian men and their enjoyment of color and fabric. It was a great addition to the men’s dancing regalia when the traders introduced trade cloth, a stiff, felt-like fabric in color of red, green, blue and black. A more fanciful use of this cloth was devised when the ends of yards of material were tied onto their horses’ tails. Off the horses would go, galloping across the prairies with color swaths of cloth billowing behind. What a delightful and amusing sight that must have been!
This poignant story of Old Horn Weasel, a Gros Ventre living during the early reservations days, show how his love of color put him a odds with the new white ways. He was so taken with his first government-issued long-johns that he painted one entire side of the undergarment red. When he joyfully donned his colorful garment, he thought he cut a fine figure as he strode around the Indian Agency. He was unaware other clothes were to be worn over his splendid red and white “suit”. The white superintendent, lacking understanding, was appalled. Old Horn Weasel was thrown in jail for bad conduct and disrespect. Two cultures were at odds- the prudishness of the white man versus the Indians’ festive love of color.
You cannot look at a Star Quilt without wondering about the designs and colors the artists chose. Quilts made by Indian women usually are done in solid colors, and those made by non-Indian women are more often done with patterned pieces. Many Indian quilters say they like bright colors, the brighter the better- hot pinks, and red, the brightest blues and greens, yellow and oranges, purples and lavenders. Some will not use black in their quilts. Yet the material, color and design are all secondary to the way a quilt is put together and finished. Most quilters agree with the woman who said, “A quilt can be ever so beautiful, but if it is stitched incorrectly, the appearance of the whole quilt will be ruined.”
The quilting itself is an important part of the art. Non-Indian women have traditionally quilted the pieced star, backing, and filling together by sewing along the outline of the diamonds in the star design and by doing an independent quilted design of the rest of the top. Indian women prefer to quilt across the pieced star design, covering the entire quilt top with fan-shaped row of stitches. The distance between fans is critical.
Quilters are equally vague about the origins of the Star Quilt design itself. Most seem to think that quilting arrived with the settlers. It is suggested that the Dakota Presbyterian Church, an independent Indian branch of the American Presbyterian Church, was the most likely vehicle for bringing quilting to the reservation. The church has congregations on all the Sioux reservations in Minnesota, the Dakotas, and Montana, and it seems likely that Star Quilts came to Fort Peck between 1880-1900, about the time the first Dakota Presbyterian missionaries, many of them Sioux, came to the reservation.
Whatever its origins, the Star Quilt has become a well established art on many reservations. One of the best places to view modern Star Quilts is at powwows, for these tribal celebrations are a time of gift-giving and sharing. Some families give away as many as 15 quilts during a single ceremony. That means some mother, aunt, or grandmother spent the previous eleven months preparing for that single moment. So heavy are the commitments of the quilters that August is the only month when most of them do not work on their art. At that time, summer celebrations have come to an end and quilters can take time to relax, replenish their supplies, and assess their quilting obligations for the coming year. And those obligations are many.
The quilter herself almost never receives a star quilt. Nor does she seem able to keep one on hand in her own home. She does not expect to keep a quilt. There are too many occasions to give them away. One quilter said that at a celebration she will give a blanket to one who has traveled a long way to attend. These quiltmakers are all dedicated to the value of sharing their work. They are quiet women, who spread their sense of love and friendship with every quilt they give away.
In conclusion, I would like to quote Father Stan Maudlin, from Blue Cloud Abbey who wrote:
“The word ‘sacrament’ means ‘a visible image that shelters an invisible reality.’ Catholics number seven principal sacraments, but all people find the sacred all around them in nature. God has left His signature in all that He has made. He is waiting, ready to bless. He is not a ‘passing’ God. He is present. Among the Dakotas, therefore, just as among all men and women, there are many sacramentals, many things that say in a symbolic way ‘the Lord is with you.’
The Star quilt is that kind of sacramental. Years ago, the bison ‘Tatanka’ was the great source of life and energy. There is a story about Tatanka and his relationship with his brothers, the humans. It was said: One day man was weak. He had eaten his fill of roots and herbs and berries, but he was weak, and though he wrapped himself in grasses, he was cold. In the end he was desperate, both for himself and for his wife and children, for the winter was coming.
In his misery he fell face down onto Mother Earth, and he prayed. He opened his heart to his Mother, and he was heard. Out of the mist his brother, Tatanka, came toward him. Tatanka said nothing at first; he only looked, but then he had pity. ‘My brother,’ said Tatanka, ‘Listen to me. We are all children of one Father; we share with each other. I see you are weak and I am strong. You are cold and I am warm. Your whole body is pitiful; your fingers cannot help you to dig for food.
‘Listen, my brother, I will make you a sacred promise. I will take care of you. I will do what our Father expects from us who are related. Listen to me carefully, and from now on do as I tell you. ‘For your food I will give you my flesh. Take it. For your clothing and covering I will give you my skin. Take it. For tools I will give you my bones. Take them. Only remember that our Father, the Maker of us all, is watching that you use all things right and with a blessing.
‘When you need me, stand on a high hill and call, I will come. When you have taken what you need from me and from my other brothers, stand on the same high hill and give thanks. Do not give thanks to me or to us, because we do what is required. Give thanks to the Father who makes all of us healthy and gives all of us a promise of happiness. Leave a mark there on the hill to show that you have given thanks, and everyone will know that you and your family are worthy people.’
And so it was. Before the hunt the camp leader stood on a hill and called to Tatanka. ‘Listen brother, We are here and we need what you have to share with us. Come! Let us take your strength into us.’ And Tatanka came. When the hunt was finished the first flesh was lifted up in a ceremony of public thanks. The hide was tanned and made into a covering. The covering was given at the important times of life, at birth, at puberty, at marriage and death. It was painted with the earth’s color into a bright star, God’s Eye. When the creator is with you, covering you, watching you, you are forever safe.
Today, Tatanka is gone. Women now have only cloth with which to make God’s Eye. But they have not forgotten their power to make a blessing nor to bring God onto their children and their family.
The pride of every Dakota home is God’s Eye- the morning star quilt. It lies folded to wait as a gift. It covers the bed, and it wraps the dead. It makes sacred whatever it covers. It is a sacramental. It is a visible image that holds an invisible reality. ‘It will not leave you orphans.’”
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