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Native quilting traditions honored in Smithsonian exhibition

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TACOMA, Wash. - Whether you're talking to quilters, collectors, educators or aficionados, anybody involved in the art of quilting speaks of it with love and a certain passion. And quilting, making them or enjoying them, seems to be habit-forming.

For many women, quilting is a natural part of life - something they do without really thinking about it. They sew quilts for birth celebrations, naming ceremonies, graduations, traditional ceremonies, giveaways and pow wows and as gifts for a wide variety of occasions.

Sometimes their creations even end up gracing the beds and walls of their own homes.

But most often quilts seem to take on a life of their own and go out into the world like little children to be displayed and admired as in the exhibit now closing at the Washington State Historical Museum here. "To Honor and Comfort: Native Quilting Traditions," a Smithsonian traveling exhibition, opens at the Museum of International Folk Art in Santa Fe, N.M., Sept. 23.

The quilts of Lula Red Cloud, an Oglala Sioux from Pine Ridge, S.D., are prime examples of those traveling children.

Red Cloud has sewed quilts since she was a young girl, helping her mother. Her first solo quilt as a married woman was designed and created for a giveaway. Sewed with her mother ever-present in her mind, Red Cloud focused intently on getting everything "just right" for the first quilt. It was, she says, the most perfect quilt she ever made.

As it turned out, the quilt was not destined for a giveaway, but for the burial of her mother who died just after it was finished.

Years later, Red Cloud is planning a series of four quilts commemorating four stages of life she had with her mother - her youth, adulthood, her senior years, and now, life without her guiding presence.

Quilting has a way of becoming intertwined with life like that. Perhaps because they are usually made for personal use rather than as "art," they carry a different significance, a different kind of energy. A woman's life can flow through her hands into a quilt to the people she loves, as well as to complete strangers. The colors and symbols she selects are those she holds dear. With them, she can paint pictures in fiber and thread, sending messages down the generations to those who come after, prompting them to see something beautiful.

"One quilt I was thinking about a hillside, kind of brown turning to gold, and you see along the creek the buffalo berries and the choke berries. And in the underbrush you see the weeds and the flowers of rust colors. And I can just visualize ... a hot day in August, and buffalo lying around under the trees and tipis in the background in the distance," Red Cloud says. "And so I took those colors and called one quilt "Life on the Plain."

She says her favorite quilt was designed using Native symbols, such as the buffalo, the eagle, tipis and stars. Disgruntled at the common use of such symbols by non-Natives, she entitled the quilt, "Tribute to the Invisible People."

Like so many quilts, "Tribute," too, has a story that involves years and intertwines the threads of many lives.

So beautiful and so meaningful was the result, Red Cloud decided if there ever was a quilt exhibition at the Smithsonian Institute, this was the work she would enter. When "Tribute" was completed, she folded it up and stored it away.

In the meantime, Marsha MacDowell, professor and curator of folk arts at Michigan State University Museum, was having a revelation. After completing a statewide survey of hundreds of quilts and studying quilting techniques, MacDowell found herself face-to-face with two quilts that "haunted" her. They were the only quilts in the survey made by American Indians.

"I was so surprised. I think for the most part everything I had ever read about Native American art never mentioned quilting," MacDowell says. "Most people think of quilting as an art-form introduced by European contact and therefore it couldn't conceivably be a Native art.

"Secondly it is a woman's art. And I think historically, cultural anthropologists and historians and ethnologists haven't looked ... at quilting because of that double whammy - women and being perceived as a non-Native art."

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MacDowell focused on finding out more about American Indian quilting and quilters. In 1989 she helped organize an annual folk life festival and filled the exhibition with Native quilts. So impressive was the exhibition, that MacDowell later decided to get funding for a national collection to be stored at Michigan State University.

Red Cloud was one of the Native quilters tapped.

Rushing to complete the commissioned quilt, Red Cloud realized she was not going to make the deadline in time. Reluctantly she hauled "Tribute to the Invisible People" out of a closet and sent that instead.

"That was a loss to me," she says. "I prized that quilt."

The quilt was stored away in the university archives. In 1995, the Smithsonian Institute decided to produce a Native American quilting exhibit. Lacking funds to commission 75 quilts, the Smithsonian asked MacDowell if the university's collection could be used. The university agreed and Red Cloud's "Tribute to the Invisible People" was one of 45 quilts selected from the 350 in storage.

After a long journey her dream had come true. "Tribute" was where it belonged: touring nationally with the major Smithsonian exhibit, "To Honor and Comfort - Native Quilting Traditions."

Red Cloud was chosen to open the exhibition with a speech at the George Gustav Heye Center of the National Museum of the American Indian in New York City in October 1997.

As traditional as the medium is, Margaret Wood, another quilter featured in the Smithsonian exhibition, says that quilting forms and applications are beginning to change.

"Originally Indian women tended to do what they were taught, the traditional patterns like "log cabin" and "grandmother's garden" and "bow tie," says Wood, who lives in Phoenix.

"Over time though, the women started incorporating some of their own tribal design elements into their quilts.

"There still is a tendency to make a lot of utilitarian-size quilts, even though you wouldn't use them on a bed. But there are a few who are just starting to make art quilts which are designed vertically and designed to be hung as art and not used on a bed."

Wood, of Navajo/Seminole descent, started out as a clothes designer, tailoring Native clothing styles to suit modern-day women. Although she loved the work, she found herself limited in the fabrics she could select for her clothing line. Quilting gave her a more free-form design outlet, plus she could afford to buy some outrageously expensive fabrics to incorporate into her quilts.

Eventually the freedom and fun of quilting got the best of her. Wood uses design elements taken from many Native mediums, such as Apache olla baskets. One of her quilts on exhibit is a 5 1/2-foot-tall, hand-painted quilt mounted on tipi poles as a tipi cover. While she still makes some small utilitarian baby or lap quilts that sell for around $50, her most expensive quilts run at $5,000 - definitely not something to leave on the bed for the dog to sleep on.

Even though Wood is well known in the medium and can charge for the art quilts, she admits it's very difficult for a woman to earn a living as a quilter.

"The people who make money ... sell books products, they have note cards and calendars and they get deals with manufacturers to design fabric and then get royalties off of the yardage," she says.

"So for someone to make money making and selling quilts, it really doesn't work. It's a matter of love."

And that's something quilters, Native and non-Native alike, have known for generations.