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Storytelling Quilts
Quilting together provides a time for sharing stores; quilts can also convey, in pictorial images or symbols, information about people, places or events. Sometimes a quilt will visually depict a story of the history of a tribe or a particular legend. A quilt that includes clan symbols or images of the Coyote trickster may prompt the telling of clan knowledge or stories of the trickster.

Until recently, nearly all North American Indian quilters used scraps of old fabrics or tore up old clothing for their quilts; in Hawaii, Native quilters used scraps only for their patchwork-style work. Stories abound about the sources of, and memories associated with, these old fabrics.


Our Heritage Quilt, 1996
Calico Country Quilt Guild
Belcourt, North Dakota
79" wide x 99” long
Collection of Michigan State University Museum.
Photo: Elbinger Studios, Inc
This quilt only appears in the exhibit as an image on a text panel .

Native and non-Native members of the Calico Country Quilt Guild, joined together in creating this textile record of the Turtle Mountain Chippewa. Included are important historical events, contemporary activities, buildings, and symbols related to their history. The central panel is an appliquéd and beaded floral design traditional to Woodland Indian culture.

Members of the guild who contributed to this quilt include: Dolores Gourneau, Theresa Brien, Lori Weidemann, Maria Weidemann, Shirley Marion, Cecile Lemieux, Jenny Schindler, Verna Jeanotte, Nancy Fry, Josephine Jeanotte, Maureen Williams, and Ernestine Jeanotte.


Tree of Peace Quilt, c. 1991-92
Sheree "Peachy" Bonapart (Akwesasne/Mohawk), co-designer and quilter
Richard Skidders (Akwesasne/Mohawk), co-designer
St. Regis, New York
85" long x 62 1/2" wide
Collection of Reginald J. Stanley.
Photo: Elbinger Studios, Inc.
This quilt only appears in the exhibit as an image on a text panel.

Made for the annual Mohawk Freedom School Quilt Auction, this Tree of Peace quilt by Peacy Bonapart was a call to stop the violence on the Akwsasne Mohawk reservation. In the purple border band, quilted figures holding hands represent the Chiefs of the Iroquois Confederacy who, united, will maintain the strength of their nations. Bonaparte explained: "In the beginning of the Haaudenosaunee Confederacy, the tree of peace was uprooted and the weapons and words of war were thrown into a hole and buried so that people could live in peace. During the time I was working on the quilt, automatic weapons were heard so frequently on the river that people no longer reacted to the horrible noise. And the words that were being used so often had lost the respect and love our people had for each other. So, when I started sewing the weapons of war beneath the tree, I stitched in the war club, but that didn't seem enough. The war club was too distant to the reality we were living. So I decided to sew an AK-47. I was real nervous about doing it. It was almost sacrilegious to mess with a traditional symbol. My heart raced while I stitched. To calm down, I stitched in the Three Sisters, the corn, beans, and squash, at the base of the tree. They are the sustainers of the life of our people."


The Tree of Peace Saves the Earth Quilt, 1990
Alice Olsen Williams (Anishnaabe)
Peterborough, Ontario, Canada
65" x 68"
Collection of MSUM, acc# 7593.1

This pictorial quilt was inspired by the "Oka Incident" at Oka, Quebec where Mohawks stood up to local and national Canadian law enforcement officials. The quilt depicts a tree, rooted on a turtle's back, bursting through and breaking apart the Canadian Parliament building. An eagle sits atop the tree and war clubs are buried beneath the turtle and roots.

Williams always incorporates a small pimaatisiwin (Anishnabek for medicine wheel) in her quilt designs, making sure that the white quarter of the wheel is never dominant or on tope and thus communicating her strong feelings about the history of natives and non-natives.


A New Time, 1996
Nancy Cougar Crone Naranjo (Eastern Cherokee)
Frederick, Maryland
82" x 58"
Collection of MSUM, acc# 1996:96

By combining painted and dyed fabric with appliqued and embroidered detailed images, Nancy Naranjo achieves a painterly effect. Embroidered at the bottom is the phrase, "In the early Spring morning, The People begin reuniting from small, wintering groups. Emissaries of Morning Star and White Buffalo Calf Woman come, carrying The Pipe. The time of healing, of coming back together to start a new time, is here."


A Gathering of Cultural Expression: Tradition and Creativity
The works of Native quilters is deeply rooted in their cultural heritage, yet also reflects individual ideas or visions. Some quilters closely adhear to the designs, materials, colors, and symbols associated with their specific tribal backgrounds; others use those of other Native and non-Native sources. Some use existing patterns; others create new designs. In some instances, quilts are the pictorial record of community-based knowledge. Quilt patterns carry names in Native language, designs are drawn from tribal sources, and colors are associated with clans or individuals.

The reasons for quilting and the quilts produced are as varied as the quilters themselves. All quilts and quilters have stories to share; viewing the quilts and hearing the stories provides us with more knowledge and a deeper understanding of Native life in the 20th century.

In November 1996, the first national Native Quilters' Gathering was held at Michigan State University in East Lansing. Each participant contribute a block of their own design to a top which they began quilting during the Gathering. Paula White, one of the participants, completed the quilting. As part of the Gathering proceedings, a tape-recorded interview was completed with each of the quilters.


Participants in the 1996 Native Quilters' Gathering in East Lansing, Michigan work on the quilt.
Photo: Minni Wabanimkee, 1996


Native Quilters Gathering Quilt, 1996-97
Participants in Native Quilters' Gathering in East Lansing, Michigan
74" x 88"
Collection of MSUM, acc# 1997:69
Photo: Elbinger Studios, Inc.

In November 1996, the first national Native Quilters' Gathering was held at Michigan State University in East Lansing. Each participant contribute a block of their own design to a top which they began quilting during the Gathering. Paula White, one of the participants, completed the quilting. As part of the Gathering proceedings, a tape-recorded interview was completed with each of the quilters.


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