Native American women began quilting out of necessity during the late 19th century. Though women of different tribes make star quilts, the Lakota in particular are well-known for creating quilts of this design.
The Early Reservation Period
According to Emma I. Hansen, a cultural anthropologist, author and enrolled member of the Pawnee tribe, the period in the late 19th century after the U.S. government had forced Indian tribes onto reservations was especially difficult for Native Americans. The government restricted the Indians’ movements, obliged them to farm lands that often wasn’t arable, forced their children into government- and church-run boarding schools, and interfered with the practice of their religions.
Learning to Quilt
Because Indian men weren’t allowed to leave the reservations to hunt, they could no longer obtain animal hides for making robes and clothing, so women turned to quilting to make bed coverings. They learned to quilt from missionaries, from the wives of government officials stationed on the reservations, and at boarding schools.
At first Indian women made quilts with square or geometric patterns. “In time, the women created many different geometric patterns for quilting, with the most prevalent contemporary design integral to cultural and ceremonial life being the star quilt,” Hansen says.
A Cultural Symbol
Indian women of many different tribes, including the Ojibway, made star quilts, but the tribe that has made the design its own is the Lakota. “The star pattern of the quilts represents the morning star, a significant symbol in Lakota beliefs and ceremonial life and, although it may have derived from introduced Euro-American designs, it also has antecedents in earlier symbolic hide-painting traditions,” Hansen writes.
Bea Medicine, a Sioux anthropologist, writes that Lakota women organized quilting societies that replaced the porcupine quill-working societies of the pre-reservation period. Being a member of a quilting society increased a woman’s standing in her community. The star quilt in particular became an object of cultural and economic importance to the Lakota.
Uses of Star Quilts
Although Medicine writes that all young Indian women were expected to make at least one star quilt to take to their new husband’s home when they married, they almost never used them to cover beds. “[S]tar quilts are used in ways that distinguish their meaning and role within Lakota Sioux life,” Medicine explains. “They are employed as door coverings for dwellings or shelters at ceremonial events and are worn by healers in the yuwipi (curing) ceremonies. More importantly, star quilts have long been a critical element in giveaways and from birth to death, the life-cycle events of Sioux peoples.”
In contemporary Lakota society, the female relatives of newborn babies make small star quilts for their new family members. When word comes that a Lakota is dying, a group of Sioux women may gather and make, in as little as four hours, a star quilt to be used at that person’s memorial service. Lakota tribal officials give star quilts to prominent politicians to honor them and to establish a basis for reciprocity.
An Economic Engine
Selling star quilts to tourists and collectors also has become a significant way for Indian women to supplement their income. Individual quilt-makers have long sold their star quilts in places adjacent to reservations, like Rapid City, South Dakota. More Indian women are taking advantage of the internet to offer their wares to the public, as well.