“Dignity” is a stunning, 50-foot statue along Interstate 90 near Chamberlin, South Dakota. A Great Plains Indian woman drapes behind her a Morning Star quilt with 128 diamond shapes that catch the sunlight during the day and glitter at night with LED lights. Courtesy Travel South Dakota.
In Teresa Duryea Wong’s article, ‘American Indians and the Adaptation of the Morning Star Quilt,’ she explains, “Star imagery has been an important part of Native American cultures for centuries. It is believed the morning star (technically not a star, but the planet Venus) signals the beginning of a new day or a new life, and it leads the sun across the sky, just as a Chief leads his people. Radiant star symbols and eight-pointed stars were painted on animals hides, tipis and illustrated on other surfaces long before traditional quilts were introduced.”
“Star Quilt with Feathers.” Unknown maker. Hand applique, embroidered. Probably made in South Dakota circa 1920. 71 x 80 in. (179 x 203 cm.). Courtesy of International Quilt Museum, University of Nebraska. (2010.047.0001)
With the tragic demise of the Great Plains buffalo herds in the late 1800s, an odd and unexpected object often came to replace the revered buffalo hide— quilts. Previously, American Indian women had long been experienced makers and were adept at sewing animal hides and weaving blankets. When Western missionaries taught traditional quilting techniques to indigenous women, they quickly and skillfully began making beautiful quilts.
As part of the tradition of makers, most of us are familiar with the practice of making and gifting quilts to family members and friends. We do this to convey love, celebrate special occasions, or express appreciation for others. Plains Indian cultures were, and are, no different in this respect; gifting quilts was something they embraced with fervor. They believed giving away one’s possessions was one of the finest things a human could do.
“Indian Headdress.” Regina Brave Bull. Cotton, synthetics. Pieced and applique. 91 x 79 in. (231 x 200 cm.). Made on the Cannon Ball, Standing Rock Reservation, North Dakota 1968-83. Florence Pulford Collection. Courtesy National Museum of the American Indian. Catalog 26/6325.
Wong says, “A successful Indian man’s place in society was made stronger by his wife’s ability as a seamstress or artisan. The woman made clothing, bags, blankets, and other items that would be gifted to others in the community. One rarely made things for personal use. At major milestones in community life, such as the birth of a baby, weddings, or when a triumphant warrior returned, the Plains Indians would host ‘giveaway’ ceremonies where the whole community would gather for a feast and then heaps of gifts [including quilts] would be offered to a family or warrior directly.” Morning Star quilts were draped over caskets at funerals and passed from one family to another in giving ceremonies.
Just as stars have been used for millennia to guide our travels, quilts provide a constant in the lives of makers, their friends and families, and those to whom they gift their quilts. In Indian culture, the Morning Star, the brightest star of the dawning day, represents guidance and confers hope in the future. Still today, the tradition of American Indian makers to gift Morning Star quilts bestows honor, respect, and admiration on both the givers and the receivers as they journey through life.
‘American Indians and the Adaptation of the Morning Star Quilt,’ is available in our Stars issue. -- Get Yours Today!
Teresa Duryea Wong is a regular contributor to Curated Quilts and is the author of American Cotton: Farm to Quilt and Magic and Memories: 45 Years of International Quilt Festival.
She can be found online at www.teresaduryeawong.com and on Instagram (@third_floor_quilts).
By Brittany Bowen Burton