In celebration of Native History Month, the Appleton Public Library hosted the travelling exhibit “Native Stitches and Stories” on the evening of Nov. 7. The night of story and song was woven together by Oneida storyteller Debra Morningstar and Wisconsin quilter Pat Ehrenberg as a tour of regional Native cultures across the Americas in the Four Directions of Turtle Island —from the eastern woodlands of the Iroquois to the deserts of the Hopi people. The event explores the historical and present significance of traditional Native quilt-making and storytelling.
Morningstar and Ehrenberg are a complimentary duo when it comes to quilts; Ehrenberg is the artist who brings Morningstar’s stories to life. Though they each have their own distinct area of expertise with little overlap, they collaborate and synthesize them into something beautiful. From traditional Oneida wedding quilts to quilts that tell a traditional creation story to quilts depicting a family history, the quilts of “Native Stitches and Stories” are full of life.
One of the most prominent quilts on display was an Oneida wedding quilt commissioned by Morningstar for her son’s wedding. The large royal purple quilt was ornamented with the nation’s colors and each symbol was imbued with meaning relevant to the union: the five silver shapes running through the middle represented the individual nations of the Iroquois Confederacy, and thick black stripes along the top and bottom of the quilt represented the closeness of “our” world and the Sky World of spirits. The quilt is oriented horizontally because it is meant to envelop the couple as they are married, symbolizing their unity as one.
Another piece beloved by the audience was a collaborative Civil War quilt Ehrenberg created with students from a local school in the Oneida nation. The quilt depicts a prairie fire with stars above, and the students each got to cut out a flame from red, yellow or orange fabric. The stars in the sky above were screen printed with the children’s faces as well as the faces of Oneida men who fought for the union in order to remind the students that their ancestors were always watching over them and that they too could do great things. At the end of the week-long program, the students held a parents’ event to share what they learned and display their quilt, which is still exhibited on the Oneida reservation today.
The central theme of the presentation was that there are myriad of ways to share stories and history, and the expression of these stories through some form of art is virtually ubiquitous across cultures. People all over the world are bound together by the quest for preservation and commemoration of memories, a quest that is especially significant for indigenous people as an act of resistance to colonization and suppression. Whether done through quilting or some other art form, the expression of these stories is beautiful and poignant.
Images of the quilts presented, information about Native quilt-making and updates about “Native Stitches and Stories” events and locations can all be found on the “Native Stitches and Stories” Facebook page.