There is something simple, yet very evocative, about a star. Stars can be cute, they can be beautiful, and, in the case of Lakota (Sioux) quilters, they can tell a piece of a story about a culture. Nine months ago, I began working with a new client for my day job – the Saint Francis Mission.
The mission is on the Rosebud Reservation in South Dakota, and as part of their work, they run one of only two Lakota museums in the world, called the Buechel Memorial Lakota Museum. As I was learning about the museum, I ran smack-dab into some lovely examples of Lakota Star quilts.
I am not a quilter (as you will see in future articles), nor was I then even slightly conversant in the various craft traditions of the Lakota people, so I was surprised to see quilts being featured. They were lovely. They were colorful. They all appeared to have the same motif – an eight-pointed star, created out of diamond-shaped patches of fabric – done in cotton or satin. As I was also planning on going to the International Quilt Study Museum for an article as well, I wanted to learn more.
The museum director, Marie Kills In Sight, was kind enough to let me speak with one of the artists whose work the museum both showcases and sells, Gloria Crazy Cat. She is a quilter with years of experience whose work uses the form in some interesting ways – as you can see in the quilt to the right, she weaves in the form of an eagle into the star motif in this particular quilt. As the eagle, and the star motif are both important to the Lakota people, the quilt is both beautiful and combines historical imagery.
Gloria shared with me that the Star Quilt tradition – and Lakota quilting in general – started only a few hundred years ago when the Lakota were moved onto reservations. The quilters learn from other, more experienced quilters. In Gloria’s case, her teacher was a woman named Isabelle Young, who sewed on the Mission. Gloria was hired by Young as an assistant, quilting five days a week and learning to make the Star Quilts from a true master of the craft.
The quilts act as more than just “quilts” – and are given for major occasions including births, deaths, marriages, graduation and are given by members of the tribe to visiting dignitaries. (Note to Johnny Cash fans: If you go to the Buechel Museum, you’ll see a guitar of Cash’s on display, with a picture of June at the Rosebud receiving a Star Quilt). These quilts aren’t just quilts, they’re the markers of major life events.
They’re also a source of income. While Gloria has a day job, some of the other ladies whose work is featured (and sold) at the Buechel Museum make most of their living by making Star Quilts to sell to outsiders. They don’t just keep the Star Quilt tradition going – in some cases it helps keep them going as well.
According to Gloria, she and other quilters in the area can finish a quilt in a few days. This is truly incredible if you see the quilts up close – the small diamonds that make up the stars can be small or large, and my mind literally explodes at the thought of piecing everything together and keeping it straight. The background stitches also vary in how the quilting on the fabric behind the stars is done – some are straightforward stitches while others are tight and intricate. (Not to mention, they don’t get a pattern out of a magazine and repurpose it, most of these designs are freehand and from the mind of the quilter).
I had a chance to visit the Rosebud reservation this spring and saw many Star Quilts up close. Nothing in the pictures I had seen online prepared me for the absolute beauty they had up close. The first thing that strikes you is the color – while some are done in with different colors in the same tone others are a riot of color that doesn’t make sense when you say it out loud – red, blue, green, white – but looks beautiful when put together. One rainbow-colored quilt I saw when I first walked in the Museum took my breath away – I’m not a fan of rainbows, but the colors were just fabulous.
I would love to see these ladies get appreciation for their brilliant designs and play on color – and for creating a vibrant, ongoing tradition.