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Message in a Blanket: Dakota Artist Stealth-Embroiders 'NOKXL' Into Obama Quilt

Dakota artist DeVon Burshiem embroidered the letters "NOKXL" onto the back of a blanket presented to President Barack Obama.
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President Barack Obama topped off his promise to visit all 50 states during his tenure by stopping in South Dakota, where he delivered the commencement speech at Lake Area Technical Institute in Watertown.

To express their gratitude both for his speech and his service as President, school officials commissioned Dakota artist DeVon Burshiem, a citizen of the Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate, to create a star quilt blanket to present to Obama.

The blanket was special—more special than anyone knew.

But now it can be told: On the reverse side of the blanket, Burshiem discreetly embroidered the letters “NOKXL” to protest the Keystone XL pipeline proposed to carry oil from the tar sands of Alberta, Canada to the Gulf Coast in Texas. Obama is due to decide in the next few months if the 1,700-mile-long pipeline will be completed and allowed to cross the border between Canada and the U.S.

“Tasina Pezuta Win emakiyapi ye. [They call me medicine blanket woman.] It was truly an honor and a blessing to know that the quilt I was making would soon be in the hands of the President of the United States, Barack Obama!” said Burshiem in a statement from the Indigenous Environmental Network. “Heartfelt prayers were made during that time, tears ran down my face as I prayed for our land and for our water, mni wicozani [water is life], without water we are without life. #NOKXL.”

The star quilt is the most cherished gift that the Oceti Sakowin—the Sioux Nation—can award. It signifies a wish to honor and protect the recipient on their life’s journey, the Indigenous Environmental Network said. The star represents the morning star, which is the guiding light for the Oceti Sakowin.

“Its obvious, from elected and traditional leaders to talented quiltmakers, the Oceti Sakowin stands resolute in its effort to stop Keystone XL,” said Dallas Goldtooth, Keystone XL Campaign Organizer for the Indigenous Environmental Network. “We sincerely hope that President Obama takes note of Mrs. Burshiem’s message and the collective opposition against this dirty tar sands pipeline and rejects the permit outright.”

Photo courtesy Indigenous Environmental Network

The front side of the star quilt presented to President Barack Obama in gratitude for his service and his commencement speech. Little did he—or anyone—know that there was an anti-Keystone XL pipeline message embroidered onto the back.