Righting Old Wrongs
Beatrice (Bea) Kabler
In the 1930s when Beatrice (Bea) Kabler was growing up, Oklahoma had been a state for only a couple of decades. At that time, it was still thought of as "Indian Territory" in the minds of many and prejudice against Native Americans was deep-rooted and widespread there.
"I was terrified of Indians as a little girl in Oklahoma," Bea recalls. "The society I grew up had a negative attitude about Indians, and all I heard about them were bad things. But I've been around the bush a few times since then and I've learned that they put their pants on one leg at a time just like everybody else. I've had the opportunity to get to know many Native Americans and I know that that they have not had a fair shake in life. I guess that understanding has made me sort of a crusader on their behalf. If I can do something to make a difference for them, I'm going to do it."
Bea is a quilter, so it is perhaps not so unusual that the way she has chosen to make a difference in certain Native Americans' lives is through quilting.
At 84, Bea is more vibrant and involved than many half her age, and her life has been dedicated to helping others. She met her husband while attending nursing school in Kansas. He was studying to be a doctor and after World War II, he found his true calling in academic medicine at the University of Wisconsin at Madison.
The couple happily settled in and raised their family there. Bea got active in politics, serving first as a County Commissioner and then as a citizen lobbyist, traveling frequently to Washington, D.C., working on causes she believed in. Active in the civil rights movement, she marched with Martin Luther King Jr.. Later on, the couple became "snowbirds", spending the winters in warm climates—first in Florida, and then in Arizona—and returning home to Wisconsin in the spring. Bea continued this tradition after her husband passed away.
It was in Arizona one winter that Bea first attended a Hopi Indian quilt lecture. She met well-known author, quilt historian, and Native American quilt expert Carolyn O'Bagy Davis, and through her began to forge relationships with Hopi quiltmakers.
Realizing that the Hopi quilters had little means with which to buy quilting supplies, Bea came up with a plan. She began taking Hopi quilts back to Wisconsin with her in the spring with the intention of selling them there among her extensive contacts to raise money.
"I'd get out the Waterford crystal and the good silver and throw a tea party," she laughs. "I invited everybody I knew and admission to the party was some sort of fabric or quilting supplies for the Hopi. The guests would buy quilts too, and every penny went to the Hopis. For more than 15 years, I hauled quilts and supplies back and forth between Arizona and Wisconsin in my Surburban. I'd ship things, too, and even though I don’t do the tea parties anymore, I’m still selling Hopi blocks and wallhangings and promoting Hopi art!"
In 2009, Bea decided to move to Arizona permanently. She bought a home near Tucson, and began volunteering at the Arizona State Museum on the University of Arizona campus. As she got to know the museum staff and noticed how much visitors enjoyed Native American exhibits, Bea suggested that the museum mount a display of Hopi quilts.
Although the staff liked the idea, they were only able to find partial funding for such a show. "They said they would need $12,000 more in order to do the exhibit," Bea remembers. "I let that turn over in my mind a little bit and let it sink in and finally I told them, ‘I can do that.’" With Carolyn O'Bagy Davis acting as guest curator, an exhibit of 20 quilts made by Hopis from the past 40 years entitled "Hopi Quilts: Unique Yet Universal" opened at the museum in January. It runs through September 24.
The Arizona State Museum's website states that, "From the 1880s on, both Hopi women and men have embraced quilting. Over the past century the craft has become a fixture in Hopi society. The Hopi have a long history of producing beautiful cotton and wool blankets, robes, belts and ceremonial sashes. Traditionally, men were the weavers among the Hopi, with their looms set-up in kivas, or ceremonial chambers. Hopi women quilt for many of the same reasons as other women from different cultures—for wedding and baby gifts, for family use, for personal satisfaction, and sometimes, for sale. While many typical American quilt patterns are evident—“crazy quilt,” “log cabin,” “nine-patch”—a uniquely Hopi aesthetic is expressed with katsina or butterfly imagery, as well as with basket motifs."
Like many other quilters in Arizona, Bea celebrated the state centennial by entering a quilt in the "100 Years, 100 Quilts" exhibit, which is on display throughout 2012 at the Arizona History Museum in Tucson, just across the street from the museum where Bea volunteers.
Entitled Katsina, a traditional spelling of the more common kachina, which refers to spiritual beings central to Hopi religious life, the quilt features blocks made by a Hopi artist, Wilmer Mahape, a man severely ill with diabetes who Bea had come to know. She purchased the blocks from him and made them into a quilt, saying, "My work is insignificant. His hand-painted art is what's important."
There are many who would argue that Bea's work is anything but insignificant. Through her tireless efforts, she has supported and encouraged Hopi quilters and has helped enable them to create their art. In the process, that little girl from Oklahoma who was "terrified of Indians" has spent a good portion of her life working to overcome the prejudice that instilled her fear.
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