Mary Annette Pember
Indian Country Today

The pandemic has changed the venue but high school graduates from the Bad River Band of Lake Superior Chippewa Tribe of Chippewa Indians in Wisconsin will still know they are loved and honored by their community.

Since 2011, volunteer seamstresses from the tribe have been making star quilts for graduates. Normally, students would be wrapped in the handmade quilts and presented with eagle feathers during an honoring ceremony inside the tribe’s community center.

In 2020, however, due to COVID-19 restrictions, tribal leaders convened the ceremony outdoors and included a car parade of graduates throughout the community.

This year’s graduation ceremony will again take place outside. Another year of pandemic restrictions, however, isn’t dampening the spirits of those preparing for the ceremony.

“Back in 2011, I felt like we should do something more for our high school graduates beyond the school’s ceremony; Ashland high school isn’t an easy school to graduate from for our kids,” said Esie Leoso, citizen of the Bad River tribe.

(Related: Graduations shouldn't be 'another form' of erasure)

Amber Miller of the Bad River Band of Lake Superior Chippewa tribe graduated in 2020 during the pandemic from Ashland high school in Wisconsin. (Photo courtesy Amber Miller)

Most Bad River students attend high school in the town of Ashland, about nine miles from the reservation.

According to the Wisconsin Department of Education, 23 percent of students at the Ashland School district are Native American. Graduation data by school district for Native students in Wisconsin is difficult to find but according to the 2015 report “American Indian Education in Wisconsin,” Native students have the lowest graduation rate of any ethnicity in the state.

After noticing the high dropout rates and achievement gap between reservation students and others, Leoso and other members of the community decided to begin making quilts as a means to honor and inspire graduates.

In 2011, there were 20 graduates, since then there have been between 29 to 40 per year, according to Leoso. This year there will be 29 graduates.

During a recent visit to the Bad River reservation Indian Country Today found face mask clad seamstresses in Essie’s sweatshop hard at work at their sewing machines creating quilts. Their laughter could be heard from the parking lot outside.

The group's unofficial name, “Essie’s sweatshop,” was inspired by the group’s first effort in 2011.

“We started in January and were really struggling to finish the 24 quilts in time for June graduation,” Essie Leoso recalled.

Some of the volunteers sewed for 6 to 8 hours at a stretch.

“We were really cranking; the smudge bowl was going all the time and the whole place smelled like sage, that’s when someone dubbed us, ‘Esie’s sweatshop,’” Leoso said.

“I like the fact that everybody puts in so much effort into making our quilts and beading feathers for us,” said Amber Miller of the Bad River tribe. Miller graduated last year.

Miller’s aunt Luanne Wiggins made her quilt and wrapped it around her shoulders during the socially distanced ceremony in 2020.

“My quilt is teal and purple, my favorite colors,” Miller said.

Graduates lined up in cars, drove up to a table at the Bad River casino and got out to receive their feathers and quilts.

“Afterwards we all had a little car parade through the community,” Miller said.

Amber Miller is wrapped in her graduation star quilt by her aunt LuAnn Wiggins on the Bad River Band of Lake Superior Chippewa tribe in Wisconsin in June 2020. The tribe held a socially distanced graduation honoring ceremony. (Photo courtesy Amber Miller)

Although students couldn’t gather for the traditional ceremony at Ashland high school, each student separately walked across the stage in the school auditorium, received their diplomas and returned to their cars.

This year, however, Ashland high school graduates will attend a typical ceremony at the school’s Richard Sundberg Gymnasium on June 6.

The 2021 Bad River graduation honors parade will take place on June 25; students will each receive a star quilt and beaded eagle feather.

“We know from the increase in quilts we make that our graduation numbers are increasing,” Leoso said. 

“The night before the ceremony, we hang the quilts and smudge them. We wrap each graduate in their quilt and play an honor song for them and congratulate every one of them,” said Gail Soulier, a volunteer seamstress.

“The whole community gathers around them; you get goosebumps seeing them with their quilts. It’s definitely an inspiration,” said Soulier, a citizen of the Bad River tribe.

“Everybody was so proud of us. My quilt is hanging in my room; everyday I’m reminded that my community cares for me,” Miller said. 

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