Quilt show honorsBy Cynthia Oi
Native American tradition
WHY did primitive humans peck at rocks to form bowls, then take the time to decorate them with patterns and lines on the outside?
Some, like Margaret Wood, believe such labor stems from the desire to create. So it is with Wood and other artists who have transformed utilitarian bedspreads into beauteous quilts that will be displayed at Bishop Museum.
"To Honor and Comfort: Native Quilting Traditions" is a traveling exhibit of the Smithsonian Institution. It showcases 45 quilts by Indian and Hawaiian textile artists and quilting groups from across the United States.
"Native quilting happened as the westward movement of Anglos happened," said Wood, a Navajo-Seminole who came to the islands to present a lecture and to help with the exhibit.
"The lifestyle changed for Native Americans as they were conquered and subdued," Wood said, and as the animals whose hides traditionally served as blankets and clothing were killed off.
At the same time, manufactured fabrics became available and Indian women began to learn to use them instead.
"The wives of military men and missionaries started giving the women sewing lessons at the forts and missions, and provided them with manufactured cotton and wool," she said.
At first, Indians made quilts with European patterns, but over time, they began incorporating tribal designs that they had been using in beadwork or other media, Wood said.
"For instance, the Odawa quilt, one of the oldest in the show, has the lone-star design, but the corners and the triangular areas are filled with a floral design that's common to the Odawa people. So the missionary design is combined with traditional tribal design."
While there are fine examples of antique quilts made by European Americans, few native quilts have survived.
Anglo women could afford to make quilts that were purely decorative, Wood said.
"They tended to make a very special quilt out of satin and expensive fabrics and they would save them for an heirloom and they would only bring them out on Sunday when the preacher came to dinner.
"But the native people lived much closer to the Earth. I believe there were many heirloom quality quilts made, but the native people didn't have the economics. If there was a bad winter and you weren't able to get the buffalo hides or deer hides for bed coverings, you couldn't hold on to that heirloom quilt. Your babies were cold."
As quilts became part of the Indian household, different tribal groups gave the quilt different significance, she said. Not only were they items of comfort, they became gifts of honor.
At an Indian school in South Dakota, for example, each member of the graduating class is presented with a quilt.
"The mothers take it upon themselves to make sure that every graduate has a quilt draped on their chair when they come in for the ceremony," Wood said. If the child doesn't have a mother or a person who sews in the family, other mothers will make one for the graduate.
"It's honoring them. It is a significant gift," she said.
Hopi culture requires a naming ceremony for a new infant. As part of that, each female member of the baby's family presents the child with a naming quilt.
"If the baby has a large family, the baby may be given 20 naming quilts. So you'll see pictures of this big pile of quilts around this tiny baby. But that's part of their culture now, part of their ceremony," Wood said.
She became a member of the planning committee for the exhibit in the mid-1990s, but the idea for the show began more than a decade ago. Getting grant money, deciding the focus and parameters of the exhibit and putting together a well-researched companion book took much of the time.
An Arizona native, Wood, 50, mother of two boys, has degrees in teaching and library science. She had a successful business selling contemporary clothing adapted from Indian designs when she took up quilting as a sideline.
"I found that the quilts were a much more creative thing. There was less marketing and more creativity." In 1990, she switched the emphasis of her business, "and I'm really glad that I did. I'm having a lot of fun with quilts."
Her pieces aren't for spreading across the mattress; she designs them to be hung on walls and each has a reason for being.
One is called "Charlie Wood's Stoma Quilt," and honors her father.
At the center of the quilt is a plastic mask that was used in her father's radiation therapy after he was diagnosed with throat cancer.
"The doctor offered it to my father, but he didn't want it, so I took it," she said.
Red and white borders representing the lighted cigarettes that caused the cancer surround imprints of hands.
"They are helping hands, actual tracings from some of the people who helped him get back on his feet," she said.
"Quilts all have stories."
What: "To Honor and Comfort: Native Quilting Traditions"
When: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday through May 7
Where: Bishop Museum
Admission: $7.95, $6.95 for children, seniors, military; includes all museum exhibits
Also: Museum staff quilt show, through May 7, Castle Memorial Building
AlsoLectures and workshops complement the exhibit. Lectures begin at 7:30 p.m. at Atherton Halau; cost is $5 each or $36 for the series. Information: 848-4144 or 848-4110. Here is the schedule:
March 7: "Hannah Baker and Her Legacy," by quilter and historian Elizabeth Akana
March 11: Quilt pattern tracing workshop, Elizabeth Akana*
March 14: "Meet Harriet Soong," who will discuss her work
March 21: "Redwork Embroidery: The 'Other' Hawaiian Quilt," by Laurie Woodard
March 25: Redwork embroidery workshop, Elaine Zinn and Woodard*
March 28: "History of Hawaiian Quilts," by Woodard
April 4: "Inspirations for Hawaiian Quilts," by Lee Wild
April 11: "Bishop Museum Quilt Treasures," by Betty Lou Kam
April 18: "Native Plant & Animal Quilts," by entomologist Dean Jamieson
April 25: "Quilt Care and Identification," by Woodard, Wild and Barbara Harger
*Workshops run from 9 a.m. to noon at the museum's Paki Conference Room. Cost: $10 per workshop; reservations required.
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