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KAHNAWAKE, Mohawk Nation — A black and crimson quilt hung in a thick ebony frame above the cutting table in Mohawk artist Carla Hemlock’s sewing studio. A profile representing the Mohawk people is stitched into the center of the quilt, with “Pre Dates 1492” in bold lettering to the right. Despite its simple composition, the quilt makes a bold statement about tribal sovereignty.
Quilting has a rich history in Native America. While it began as the result of contact with European settlers and exposure to boarding schools, over the last 200 years many Native women have embraced the practice, incorporating their own stories and tribal traditions into the composition of these ornate blankets.
Hemlock is one of a handful of Native American quilters who are pushing the boundaries of traditional quilting techniques and producing elaborate pieces of contemporary art.
“She looks at issues that affect us,” said Martin Loft, cultural programs supervisor at the Kanien’kehaka Raotitiohkwa Cultural Center. “What she brings to it is a point of view from a contemporary political life.”
The “Haudenosaunee Passport” quilt hanging in her studio, for example, tells the story of the ordeal she faced in 2010 when her 30-year-old son, Kanentokon, embarked on what was supposed to be a 10-day trip from Montreal to Bolivia to attend an environmental conference. When Kanentokon and his two travel companions tried to return, they encountered problems with Canadian customs.
“They were told, ‘Sorry, you cannot travel back to Canada or to the U.S. with this passport,’” Hemlock said.
What should have been a simple flight home, she said, turned into a monthlong diplomatic argument over the validity of the men’s Iroquois passports, known locally as the Haudenosaunee passport.
“They were threatened with deportation back to Bolivia, or they were going to be thrown in jail until the situation was resolved,” she said. Quilting helped channel her anger. “Doing this type of work is just continuing to tell our stories from our perspective.”
The turtle — an Iroquois symbol for the earth — figures prominently in her quilts, and she includes other cultural references as well. She often includes men linking arms, symbols representing the six Iroquois nations bound together and traditional Mohawk sky domes in her decorative stitches — details that can be detected only when viewed closely.
“It’s what makes it Iroquoisan,” she said. “A Haudenosaunee person would walk up to it and go, ‘Yeah, I know what she’s saying just by those designs.’”
While Hemlock uses some traditional quilting techniques, many of her pieces can be compared to paintings with compositions that are much more representational and narrative.
“Tribute to the Mohawk Ironworkers” is her nod to the Mohawk men who helped build New York City in the 1930s. It was based on Charles Ebbets’ famous “Lunch Atop a Skyscraper” photograph, and like it, Hemlock’s version depicts 11 men sitting on an iron beam above the New York City skyline. Each of the crimson figures was hand cut and stitched, with beadwork completing the details of the faces and clothing.
‘A quilt is nonthreatening. And when people walk away, they have something to think about.’
Another Native American who’s pushing the quilting boundaries is Seminole-Navajo quilter Margaret Wood.
“She’s tremendously creative,” said Marsha MacDowell, folk art curator at the Michigan State University Museum. When Wood begins a project, MacDowell said, she tries to make her designs unique so that the general observer can’t tell they were by the same artist.
Over the years her quilts have gone from a mostly geometric style to more abstract designs — better displayed on a wall rather than draped over a bed.
“As I aged, I realized that it was more fun for me to tell my own personal stories,” Wood said.
Her transition to this approach began with a quilt she named “Charlie Wood’s Stoma,” a tribute to her late father, who was diagnosed with throat cancer and underwent radiation therapy.
The center of the quilt depicts the plastic radiation mask used during his treatment. Along the border are the handprints of the family members who helped him recover. Red and white strips, representative of the cigarettes that contributed to his cancer, line the central image and outer edge.
Her current project honors the memories of her childhood on the Navajo Nation. The six-quilt series will feature the sandstone buttes of Monument Valley, a Navajo Tribal Park in Arizona near the Four Corners. So far, she has completed two quilts.
Wood’s pieces often use nontraditional techniques, but MacDowell said her work still resonates with her experience as a Seminole and Navajo.
“Quilting there is a tool or tradition that is closely connected to baby-naming ceremonies or honoring ceremonies,” MacDowell explained.
Although quilting in Native America dates to as early as 1810, she said, the practice receives little attention from anthropologists and art collectors. There’s a stigma that it isn’t connected to Native life.
However, that’s slowly changing, she said, thanks in part to artists like Hemlock and Wood, who in recent years have garnered international attention.
Wood said she’s flattered by the interest in her quilts, but the attention isn’t her motivation. “It just feels good,” she said. “I can’t stop even if I wanted to.”
For Hemlock, quilting is also a way to initiate dialogue on topics she feels are important, whether it’s tribal sovereignty or fracking.
“A quilt is nonthreatening,” she said. “And when people walk away, they have something to think about.”