by Suzanne Labry
Plains Indian Star Quilts
Plains Indians are the indigenous peoples of the Great Plains and Canadian Prairies of North America.
Historically associated with horses, buffalo hunting, and nomadic culture, Plains Indians are the group that has come to define the way that Native Americans are perceived throughout the world through depictions in art, film, and literature. One aspect of Plains Indians culture that may not be so well known, however, is the fact that they have a strong quilting tradition.
Photo Right: An unidentified Lakota quilter works on a patchwork quilt with Star blocks. Photo courtesy of Buechel Memorial Lakota Museum.
In the late 1800s, wives of Christian missionaries taught quilting techniques to Plains Indian women. Long known for artistry and craftsmanship in such art forms as woven rugs and blankets, beadwork, basketry, pottery, and ceremonial clothing, it is hardly surprising that Indian women readily mastered quilting as well.
The timing of the introduction of quilting to the Plains Indian artistic repertoire coincided with the disappearance of the buffalo, and quilts became replacements for buffalo robes in ceremonies and in everyday life.
Especially important were (and still are) star quilts, particularly those based on the Lone Star pattern, reinterpreted as the Morning Star. Many Plains Indian legends, oral histories, and creation stories refer to the sky and to the stars in particular, and perhaps that may explain why star quilts have such resonance within the native culture.
Indian quilters often name their quilts poetically, reflecting the inspirations referenced during the quilt’s construction. The quilts are sometimes used to tell stories, and the color combinations used in star quilts can have particular meanings. Star quilts are given as gifts both to men and women to show respect and honor. They are given to guests at sacred ceremonies and have special significance with death and burial traditions.
According to the American Indian Cultural Research Center in South Dakota, “The mythology as well as the traditions of our North American Indian tribes shows a religious observance of the stars and a reverence for all the heavenly bodies. The Milky Way is called the ‘Pathway of Departed Souls.’ After death it is believed, by many Indian Americans, that the spirit of the deceased passes on this pathway to the Southern Star, the abiding place of the dead. It is thought that to the Stars, the Great Spirit gave the power to watch over mortals on earth and impart to them spiritual blessings. The Star Quilt is given today as a token of this belief. Southwest Peoples call this ‘God's Eye.’”
Quilt Below: Red Bottom Tipi quilt by Almira Buffalo Bone Jackson. Photo by Walter Larrimore, courtesy of the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI).
The person responsible for bringing awareness of Plains Indians star quilts to non-natives was Florence Pulford, a California homemaker who got interested in quilts of the Plains tribes in the 1960s when she had the opportunity to visit the Fort Belknap Reservation in Montana.
Over time, she developed longstanding friendships with the quilt artists and began buying fabric and materials for them. Later, she provided income for the quilters by selling their quilts to the public. For some of the women, it was the first time they had ever earned money.
Pulford eventually wrote a book about their work: Morning Star Quilts: A Presentation of the Work and Lives of Northern Plains Indian Women (Leone Publications). Before she died in 1989, Pulford collected 150 Plains Indian star quilts, and in 2007 the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) purchased 50 of them from Pulford’s daughters, Ann Wilson and Sarah Zweng, who also donated an additional 38 from their mother’s collection. It is believed to be the largest publicly held collection of Plains Indian quilts in the world.
The way in which traditional quilt patterns change depending upon the location, social mores, and cultural traditions of the quilters who adopt them is one of the fascinating aspects of quilting. In the case of Plains Indian quilts, the star takes on an additional and unusual depth of history and meaning.