Winnebago Quilts: Honor and Celebration
Writer: Suzanne Smith Arney
A Star Quilt hangs above the library’s circulation desk. A single star pieced of vibrantly colored diamonds dominates its field of light blue. At its center is an appliqued buffalo, engrossed in a book. The quilter, Maria Scott, was commissioned to make the banner, which encourages reading. It’s an engaging and light-hearted image, but it’s emphatically and assuredly of this particular place—The Winnebago Indian Reservation—in its style and motif. Buffalo is one of the tribe’s sacred clans; they serve as public criers, messengers. In this case, the quilt is the medium that supports the buffalo’s message.
Little Priest Tribal College Library Quilt; 2003. 76 inches square. Pieced by Maria Scott (quiltmaker unknown.) This quilt was commissioned for the college’s new library and made by Maria Scott in time for its 2004 opening. Photo courtesy of Natalie Davis.
Around the world, quilts have, from earliest times, had emotional as well as functional purposes. Quilts convey status, affiliation, pedigree. They are a canvas for artistic expression and technical virtuosity; a banner for opinions and beliefs; a testament of piety. Some are the “silk purses” of spare lives; the prototype for recycling. Others are extravagant and exquisite nonpareils made for display. Within certain groups especially, quilts provide emotional warmth and protection; their various pieces, like the members of the community, are stitched together into a vibrant and affirming life force.
Buffalo Quilt. Maria Scott. (This is not technically a quilt, but piecework, behind glass.) This quilt is hung in the Spiritual Room at the Winnebago Hospital. Photo courtesy of Muriel Walker.
This last statement describes the role of quilts among the Winnebago people. From the first lessons taught by 19th-century Euro-American missionaries and settlers, Winnebago have layered their own skills and motifs onto patterns that had been carried west across centuries and continents. Many Winnebago have themselves moved west, relocated by the U.S. government during the 1840s-1860s from their woodlands home in Wisconsin onto the open plains, historic territory of the Sioux.
Skirt panel (in progress). Nona Buffalo Calf. Ribbonwork, a form of reverse appliqué, features stylized motifs of flora and fauna, representing the tribe’s wooded ancestral homelands. Designs are individualized, and identify a person’s clan and family. Photo courtesy of Muriel Walker.
The quilt pattern most associated with Plains Indians is a Star quilt, an eight-pointed star made of hundreds of diamond-shaped pieces. It fit well with the Winnebago own tradition of using star motifs on buffalo robes.
White Buffalo Quilt; 2009. 96 inches square. Hand pieced and quilted by Velma Alaniz. White Buffalo Woman is a powerful deity and messenger. Photo courtesy of Muriel Walker.
Generation to Generation
For Winnebago women, with a long tradition of skilled needlework, quilting was a natural progression. Quilters on the Winnebago Reservation in northeastern Nebraska, like those of the Sioux tribes, developed a tradition of Star quilts for their own use as household necessities and as a marketable commodity.
White Buffalo Quilt. Velma Alaniz, a Winnebago elder, offered a quilting class this spring. Instead of using strips of fabric, she sews the diamond pieces together individually. “Elders’ role as teachers is vital to our survival as a tribal entity,” says Muriel Walker, “for they possess all of the stories and information that are passed down to the next generation.” Photo courtesy of Muriel Walker.
In addition to their association with a particular pattern, Plains Indians’ use of quilts, as ceremonial gifts and as symbols of honor, distinguish the community. Winnebago Star Quilts have been given to political and religious leaders; they grace the schools and hospital walls; they accompany men and women in the armed services and welcome them home again; they wrap newborns and shroud the dead.
Baby quilt. Machine pieced and quilted by Patrice Blackhawk. Photo courtesy of Muriel Walker.
When T.J. Smith died after a car accident in August, 2009, the daily business of Winnebago was put aside to mourn the loss of this young man and to show support to his family. Quilters immediately went to work, producing five quilts in time for his funeral. Scott worked twelve hours nonstop to intuitively design and then piece a quilt depicting a bald eagle soaring over the earth. The eagle is fashioned with the same diamond shapes as the star, in some cases piecing together two or three colors to make one diamond. Below the star is written “Wambli Oyate Owayankapi.” Smith was of Winnebago-Sioux heritage, and the inscription is his Sioux name, “Eagle nation watches over him.”
T.J. Smith quilt: cotton; 100x90 inches; 2009. Designed and pieced by Maria Scott; Quilted by Patrice Blackhawk. A give-away quilt, honoring the memory of T.J. Smith. Photo courtesy of Garan Coons.
From the Heart
Another quilter, Sharon Redhorn, learned quilting from her grandmother, Imogene Redhorn. “She gave me a practice piece in an embroidery hoop when I was ten or eleven,” she remembers. “She’d get pieces from old clothing. She was thrifty. She didn’t like to throw anything away.” Redhorn treasures three fragile quilts made by her grandmother. “She liked quilts because they were useful, and more than that, they came from the maker’s heart.”
Traditional ribbonwork appliqué highlights the skirt and purse of Savannah Chamberlain’s dance regalia sewn by her mother, Sharon Redhorn. Photo courtesy of Don Doll, S.J., Creighton University.
Look to the Future
Today, Redhorn is teaching her daughters, Winona and Savannah, those needle skills, and more. “I tell them the stories my grandma told me.” Redhorn especially enjoys making the girls’ dance regalia. To embellish the dance regalia worn by her daughters for powwows, Sharon uses another traditional Winnebago stitching technique: wawaje or ribbonwork, a version of mirror-image appliqué. Redhorn puts a thin batting under her ribbonwork to give it a trapunto effect. Redhorn and her daughters travel to powwows and frequently dance together. “This is what keeps us close,” she says. Sharon and others teach quilting at Woodland Trails Art Center in Winnebago, Nebraska. Whether for income or giveaways, quilts represent the history, culture, endurance, practicality, and beauty of their makers and of the Winnebago people. Each one is both an honoring and celebration.
Savannah and Winona, daughters of Sharon Redhorn, wear regalia for celebration dancing. Photo courtesy of Don Doll, S.J., Creighton University.
Visit the Woodland Trails Art Center, Winnebago, Nebraska, May 25 to June 22 to view The Winnebago Star Quilt: Piecing Together a Legacy, an exhibition of quilts featuring traditional and contemporary interpretations of Winnebago history and culture. Quilters stitch, piece, and quilt the stories and their memories of what it means to be Winnebago. Reception to meet the artists May 25; Chuck Raymond Gallery; for details, call 402/878-4075 or visit woodlandtrailsart.com.
The Woodland Trails Art Center is located in the Missouri River bluffs of northeast Nebraska, on the Winnebago Indian Reservation. It is 66 miles north of Omaha and 25 miles south of Sioux City, Iowa. The retail store/gallery/studio has fine art pieces, quilts, jewelry, home decor, and clothing. Nearby is the open-air “Honoring the Clans” sculpture Garden.
Muriel Walker, Woodland Trails Sales and Learning Center Coordinator, and Jack Vitito display two quilts by Patrice Blackhawk. Photo courtesy of Jeremy Staab.
The Winnebago Pow-wow (July 22–25, 2010) bills itself as the oldest pow-wow in North America and is open to the public. This gathering of Native and non-Native people is a celebration of Native culture and honoring of military heroes. Experience singing, drumming, dancing, regalia, food, and crafts. Veteran’s Memorial Park, Winnebago, Nebraska. For information, e-mail Maria at email@example.com or call
Oak Leaf Quilt. Hand-pieced and hand-quilted by Marguerite Johnson. Although decidedly different from ribbonwork, this quilter celebrates nature in her own personal way. She also subtly honors the sacred significance of the number four and the concept of balanced wholeness. Photo courtesy of Muriel Walker.