Star Power: Piecing Together Tradition and Community

Aug 11th, 2013 | By | Category: 25-1: Art & Symbolism, Features
By Richard Peterson

As an eight-year-old, Kathleen Red Thunder Ventura often spent time in Poplar, Montana, visiting her grandmother, Laura Iron Ring. The elder was known for her colorful star quilts, always stitched together by hand and with help from an old-time foot pedal sewing machine.

Ventura, however, took more notice of what her grandma was doing in the kitchen. “She could really whip out a good batch of frybread like nothing,” she recalls. Now that Ventura herself is a grandmother, she wishes she would have stuck closer to the sewing machine and the art of making star quilts. “I’ve always wanted to know how to make one and I could kick myself now because I wish I had paid more attention back then,” says Ventura, now one of hundreds of students who have completed a star quilt-making class at Fort Peck Community College (FPCC). “She was a good grandma.”

The three-credit class, offered each semester under the college’s Cultural Arts Department, has become increasingly popular over the past 20 years. It usually meets one night per week in the evenings, except during the summer semester when a more intense 40-hour class is held in a single week. The ages of the students range widely—from 18 to 75.

Enrolled students gather in the administration building’s basement in a room that becomes smaller as each student spreads out his or her materials on the dozen or so tables. Sewing machines are shared and a standing cupboard is filled with tools and materials that are accessible to all students making their quilts.

The star quilt has become synonymous with the Fort Peck Indian Reservation, home to the Assiniboine and several bands of Lakota and Dakota. Presbyterian missionaries introduced the art of quilt-making in the 1800s. Unable to subsist off of the quickly disappearing, massively over-hunted buffalo, star quilts were often used as a symbolic replacement for the buffalo robe, according to tribal historians. Local women immediately took to the activity and eventually made it their own by using traditional colors and designs.

Receiving a quilt is considered a great honor and often takes place at powwows, funerals, memorials, and even basketball tournaments. Indeed, one of the busiest times of the year for quilt makers is basketball season. In FPCC’s star quilt-making class, many of the students plan to make blankets for a basketball team’s star quilt giveaway. The reservation’s four high school teams—Poplar, Brockton, Frazer, and Wolf Point —conduct a star quilt ceremony similar to a traditional giveaway at their district tournaments.

Parents honor their children who play basketball by giving a quilt to a player or coach from an opposing team. The practice has been praised in state newspapers as a bridge-building event between Native and non-Native communities throughout eastern Montana. The tradition began at Brockton High School in the 1930s, when a grandmother laid a star quilt out on the gym floor in honor of her son. She then gave the quilt away to an audience member, according to tribal archives.

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Rose Atkinson began teaching quilt-making at FPCC in 1996. Help came from the Ford Foundation, which donated six sewing machines. Atkinson has years of experience with quilting, learning the craft from her grandmother. When she was 20 and pregnant with her first child, she made a star quilt for her future son.

About 10 students, most of whom were teachers from local schools, were enrolled in that first class Atkinson taught in 1996. “It was a real struggle because I was afraid of teaching a group of teachers,” Atkinson confesses. Eventually, as the years went by, she became more comfortable teaching the course and began encouraging her students to be as creative as possible when making their designs and picking their materials and colors. “I can show them the technicalities of how it is put together, but I tell them, ‘You have to come up with your own look and vision.’ And they have a lot of fun with that,” she notes. “The art portion of the class comes from the minds of each student.”

Most students make the traditional lone star design, a popular pattern in England during the late 1700s that missionaries eventually carried to the Great Plains a century later. Over the years, about a half-dozen students who have taken the class have gone on to form their own star quilt-making businesses. The FPCC bookstore also sells star quilts made by class alumni. Perhaps surprisingly, a number of the best quilters to come out of Atkinson’s class are men. Some of the quilts made by her former students are considered the best on the reservation and are prized by many.

As in every class, there are students who catch on fast and others who take a little longer to learn the intricacies of piecing and sewing the quilt together. Jordis Ferguson, a U.S. Army veteran and FPCC student, is one of those students who caught on immediately. She took the course during the spring 2013 semester and was making her second quilt by the end of April. “I really enjoy the class and I look at it as a way of getting my traditional ways back,” says Ferguson. She has plans to give one of her quilts away. “This is for my sister who is always helping me out,” she says, while preparing to sew sections of the quilt together. “This is how I’m going to tell her ‘thank you.’”

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On a spring evening as Atkinson’s class was in session, the quilt-making instructor was bouncing from table to table helping students, as soft music played in the background. Some students visited with one another and shared the tricks and techniques of star quilt-making they had learned along the way. “I really like being with these people. It’s really soothing and comfortable to be here,” Ferguson says.

Atkinson hopes the tradition of star quilt-making continues to thrive at Fort Peck and that students continue to understand the importance of holding onto and passing on an art form that is so important to the Assiniboine and Sioux tribes. “I always tell them to put good feelings into your project, especially if it’s for someone else. You’re giving something good away.”

Richard Peterson is a freelance journalist living in Poplar, Montana, on the Fort Peck Indian Reservation. He is an enrolled member of the Fort Peck Assiniboine and Sioux Tribes and a member of the Native American Journalists Association.

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