Navajo Quilt Maker Susan Hudson Pays Tribute to Plains Ledger Art

A profile of Navajo quilter Susan Hudson, who is combining quilting with elements of Plains ledger art.

Susan Hudson, a member of the Kinyaa’a’anii or Towering House clan of the Navajo Nation, is a rising star on the Indian arts and crafts scene. Her unusual quilt designs are capturing the attention of artists, textile collectors, and art show judges alike, winning her top honors at a number of prestigious shows.

One of Hudson’s award-winning quilts, entitled "Stars Among the Shunkaa Wakan," features a luminous Plains-style star, one side appliqued in dazzling browns and yellows representing day, and the other side in vibrant and varying shades of blue representing night. Encircling the star, brightly colored ponies gallop proudly across a hand-embroidered ledger book page featuring the names of Hudson’s own ancestors and those who endured the Navajo’s Long Walk to the Bosque Redondo in 1864.

Quilt making is an art form that was introduced to tribes during the nineteenth century by missionaries, teachers, and traders. Over the past century, however, quilts have become expressive canvases for illustrating native culture, symbolism, and ideology. By combining symbols of her own Navajo legacy with the Plains patterns and motifs within her designs, Hudson's quilts make a powerful statement about the shared experiences of many Native American communities. Each is a work of art that embodies history, cultural perseverance, pride, and passion.

Hudson, a descendent of the prominent leader Nabona, and grandniece of Master Weaver Mary Ann Foster, says she is not a natural born artist. “I may have a Master Weaver in my family,” she laughs, “but I can’t weave, draw, paint or make jewelry. I was blessed with creative hands for sewing.”

Hudson herself was born and raised in East Los Angeles. Times were tough for her family, so to help defray costs, her grandmother made the family’s clothes. There was no money for a sewing machine, so her grandmother taught Hudson to sew by hand. She was nine years old when she learned to quilt.

Since then, she has raised a substantial family of her own and, while rearing her children, made numerous quilts for gifts, for powwow giveaways, and to make extra money for the family. The mother of four daughters and the grandmother of nine, she often worked two jobs at a time in order to make ends meet. For the past 15 years she worked as a Lead Travel Auditor for the Marine Corps and also as a Barista at Starbucks.

Interestingly, she also honed her skills in martial arts. As a student of famed Judo Master Hayward Nishioka, she earned a Black Belt and became a two-time National Judo Champion. While she was still competing, Nishioka introduced her to another Native American Judo champion: Ben Nighthorse Campbell, who in 1964 was a member of the U.S. Olympic Judo Team. The two became close friends.

Campbell, a Northern Cheyenne who went on to become a U.S. senator and a jeweler, says that, as it happens, he already knew Hudson’s family. “When it comes to judo, Susan was a great competitor, and she is also an amazing quilter. I believe she is one of the best in the nation -- just incredibly talented. We used to go up to Lame Deer [Montana] every year for the 4th of July powwow and I would always see her family there. Traditional crafts keep our stories alive. Her aunt is a traditional weaver, and Susan is carrying on that tradition.”

Hudson, who also has a keen interest in native history, began formulating ideas that would eventually turn into her ledger quilt designs. “I became very interested in the Plains star quilt,” she remembers. “I have always admired the Plains tribes and I wanted to somehow try to turn the tragic part of their history into a tool for learning.”

“Horses are another cultural element that Navajos and Plains Indians share,” she points out. “They were our means of transportation. We also used braided horse hair for ropes and other things, and horses play a large role in the Navajo Creation stories.”

Hudson finally began putting the quilt together, working on it every spare moment in between jobs and after work. It took her eight months to do the sewing, and several more months just to decide on the placement of the figures.

Hudson says she loves rich colors that lend depth and dimension. In the completed piece, the horses change colors as they move across the quilt. “Our warriors are always watching over us,” she says. The colors in the star are also the same colors she used in the horses, reminding us that we are all connected, and that the Creator too, is watching over us.

She explains that her inspiration for the ledger book design was inspired by historic Plains ledger book paintings. For 19th-century Plains artists, ledger books, obtained the in trade, or as loot taken after a skirmish with the cavalry or a raid, became an inexpensive medium. Ledger drawings often depicted battles and acts of heroism. After the tribes were forced onto reservations, Plains artists added depictions of daily life, chronicling the social and cultural changes they were undergoing.

“I’ve always admired ledger art, so I was challenged to make a ledger quilt that I could be proud of and people would like,” Hudson says.

She first entered her quilts in a show at a crafts fair in Shiprock in 1992. She won first place. Next she entered them in the 1993 Navajo Fair, and won second place. She then set her sights on the Heard Museum show. Since those first competitions, wherever she has gone, her designs and craft work speaks to the judges.

“By combining star quilt designs with ledger book art she is making a breakthrough in Indian art,” says Campbell. “Her dedication is paying off, as proven by her recent impressive showings in some of Native America’s toughest juried shows.”

Her ledger quilt has taken four first place awards: at the Navajo Nation Fair; the Gallup Intertribal Ceremonies; the Museum of Man in San Diego; and at the Indian Arts and Crafts Association. She also received two second place awards, at the Heard Museum and the Eitelijorg Museum Indian Market and Festival in Indiana.

In 2011, Hudson was invited to show her quilts and give demonstrations at the Heard Museum, at the Indian Arts and Crafts Association, and at the National Museum of the American Indian. Her work has also been the subject of articles in the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian magazine; Native People magazine, and Cowboys and Indians magazine, among other publications.

One thing that bothers Hudson is the lack of recognition that Indian quilters get. “In the quilting world, you almost never hear about Native American quilt work,” she points out. “You hear about African-American quilters, Amish quilters, and other ethnic quilt workers, but you never hear about Indian quilters. My grandmother taught kids to weave, but, because of boarding schools and all, my mother’s generation lost a lot of their culture. We need to talk to our elders and learn our history in order to bring the generations back together. Younger people are now returning to our traditional craft work, but they are also bringing in newer, more contemporary ideas -- and that’s a good thing.”

“After the buffalo disappeared,” Hudson continued, “our women were forced to learn sewing in boarding schools. But look at what we are doing with it now. We are taking it a step further and using it to tell our own stories so we will never forget. I am grateful for being taught this skill, and I’m grateful to my ancestors for all they did. They were strong survivors. If they hadn’t survived, I wouldn’t be here.”