Michigan Quilt Project
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North American Indian and Native Hawaiian Quilt Collection [click here to see samples]

Native quilters in the Hawaiian Islands and on the North American continent have long used colors and designs distinctly their own to make quilts which function in ways both similar to other cultural groups as well as in ways that have specific tribal or pan-Indian meanings. Quilts have been used in nearly every Native community for everyday purposes such as bed coverings, shelter coverings, infants' swing cradles, weather insulation, and providing a soft place to sit on the ground. In some communities, quilts are also used to honor individuals, in ceremonies, and in a variety of activities that strengthen community life.

Native peoples in the Hawaiian Islands and North America have always had many indigenous traditions of textile production and use; the materials and skills of quiltmaking had many precedents in these communities. When commercially-manufactured cloth and steel needles became available to native peoples, it was not surprising that, adept at similar craft forms, they quickly picked up quiltmaking. Native needleworkers continually combine or replace old materials and technologies with new. Finger-woven animal pelt blankets have been replaced by wool blankets and quilts, hides replaced by cotton fabrics, and awls and needles replaced by sewing machines and rotary cutters.

The initial conveyance of quilting skills to Native peoples occurred in the nineteenth century with the establishment of mission schools and churches in Native communities. Numerous references in missionary diaries and letters, mission records and newsletters, and oral histories point to the substantial influence that Christian denominational mission churches and schools had in introducing quiltmaking to Native peoples. Through both formal instruction and in the context of affiliated women's social groups, missions promoted Euro-American domestic arts, including quiltmaking and other forms of needlework. Whether Mennonite missions on Hopi land, Mormon missions in Utah and Nevada, Quaker mission schools in Pennsylvania, or Catholic missions in frontier outposts, these Christian evangelical and educational efforts were instrumental in introducing and sustaining interest in these crafts.

Within Native communities, quilts are often used to mark rites of passage or special occasions and to honor individuals for their special achievements or contributions. At naming ceremonies, quilts are given to friends and family in honor of the loved one being named. Students graduating from high schools or college are given quilts as a sign or recognition of their academic accomplishments. Athletes winning competitive events are given quilts for their physical achievements. Veterans returning from military service are honored with quilts to thank them for their bravery and personal sacrifice. Any one who has contributed significantly to his or her own, family's or community's well being is honored, either by being given a quilt or having quilts given away on their behalf.

Production techniques (patchwork, appliqué, quilting, tied work), material preparation (batting, recycling cloth), patchwork patterns, quilting designs, and quilt names were shared among Native and non-Native quiltmakers. Yet choices of patterns, construction techniques, materials, and names often are tied to Native or tribal identity. Native artists adapt the beadwork, rug weaving, and basket weaving patterns of their cultural heritage of their own experience into their quilts. Color choices often reflect the Native quilter's close spritual ties to the natural world. Many times Native quilters, irrespective of their own tribal background, will select printed fabrics that incorporate Southwestern or pan-Indian imagery, such as eagles, running horses, or motifs from or resembling those of Navajo rugs.

Of all the discrete collections of the MSU Museum's quilt collections perhaps the most important is the collection of North American Indian and Native Hawaiian quilts. Several museums have one or a few samples of Native quilts and a handful of museums have quilts specializing in the quilts of one culture or tribe (for instance Native Hawaiian or Lakota Sioux) but no other musuem in the world has a collection that not only represents the breadth and diversity of Native quilting in North Amercia but also is accompanied by documentary information resulting from historical and ethnographic research.

There are a number of reasons why Native quilters have been so little known to those outside their families or communities and that museums have so few examples in their collections, but perhaps the chief reasons were that it is an art form that has appeared so extensively in everyday life and that it was primarily the result of indigenous cultural contact with outsiders. Considered commonplace and perceived firmly tied to a European rather than a Native artistic tradition, quilts, unlike other Native arts, were historically not collected or studied as items of ethnographic, aesthetic, or marketplace value. In addition, most quilts made within Native communities were made for everyday use; even those made and given in ceremonies were intended for everyday use. Thus, there are few extant historical quilts in either private or public collections.

The first Native American quilt acquired by the Michigan State University Museum was one documented in a Michigan Quilt Project Discovery Day in 1985. The quilt, made c. 1920 by Margaret (or Anna) David, an Odawa quilter, from Peshawbestown, Michigan has distinctively Woodland Indian floral motifs in the corners and sides of a traditional Star quilt pattern. It was donated by a non-Native family who had acquired it from its maker. Subsequent research has uncovered five more quilts done in this style and has revealed that the quilter was probably affiliated with a group of women who quilted together in the basement of the Church of the Immaculate Conception in Peshawbestown, Michigan, a community where Ojibwa and Odawa had long resided. Additional research by museum staff on Ojibway, Odawa, and Potawatomi quilting resulted in the collection of narratives, photographs, and quilts documenting the long-time engagement in quilting by many Native women in the region.

Working in tandem with the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of the American Indian, Atlatl (the national service organization for professional Native artists), and many tribal museums as well as quilters, collectors, and other scholars, the Michigan State University Museum staff continued to document Native quilting traditions throughout the United States and Canada. These efforts have resulted in the exhibition "To Honor and Comfort: Native Quilting Traditions" that toured to major museums across the nation, a smaller version of the exhibit that is touring to tribal museums, a publication, and the collection of well-documented quilts and related materials at MSU.

-- by Marsha MacDowell [excerpt from Marsha MacDowell, ed., Great Lakes,Great Quilts. Concord, California: C&T Publishing, 2001]


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