Mennonites and Amish have long been known for their excellent quilting skills. In the North American West, they have found themselves to be in good company – especially on the Fort Peck Reservation, home also to several Mennonite communities and nearby Hutterite Colonies.
I have been in a special position to appreciate this as the grandson of the perpetual head of the EMB Ladies’ AID quilt committee and the son of a mother who herself learned to quilt from Native American quilters at the school in which she taught. I deeply treasure both my Schmekfest Quilt and my two star quilts – one made by my mother and one given to me upon graduation by her best friend.
|Nancy Wall presenting star quilt.|
While Native American quilts (owija in Lakota) tend to be as diverse and colorful as their Mennonite and Amish counterparts, the most famous pattern is the Star Quilt. Educational materials from the Montana State Department of Education indicate that the star quilts reflect the pre-Columbian geometric designs that the plains peoples used to decorate tipis, buffalo and elk hides and clothing. As animal hides became rarer and the Bison was hunted to near extinction, alternatives to the hides had to be found – so the tribes turned to European fabrics and quilting. According to the State, the star symbol represents a new day and new beginnings while incorporating the sacred number four indicating the four ordinal compass points and the four basic folk art colors – red for east and new beginnings, yellow for south, healing and youth, black for west and spirituality and white for north, spiritual heritage, wisdom and guidance. Somewhat unofficially, one might note a certain preference on Fort Peck for colors reflected in the flag (seen below), in the US flag or for the local school mascots. State materials indicate that star quilts have become the modern equivalent of the former painted bison hides.
|Fort Peck Traditional Assiniboine and Sioux Star Quilts courtesy of Almira Buffalo Bone Jackson family.|
Perhaps the greatest tie-in between Native American Quilts and Mennonite quilts are their purposes. Like Russian Mennonites, the Plains Native Americans are exceptionally community and family oriented. Quilts continue to serve primarily to protect but also to create memorials, to take care of each other, to honor people and to provide for the community – either as give-aways or to raise money through sales. Common to both communities is the proliferation of quilting clubs and societies – possibly a modern adaptation to pre-Modern forms of communal task-sharing in both ethnicities. Quilts are even becoming increasingly popular items to help the mourning process in both cultures – amongst the Assiniboine, quilts are often given away after a funeral to honor friends and family of the deceased. Amongst Mennonites and other rural prairie dwellers, it is increasingly common to see caskets draped with a special memorial quilt, or one that had special significance to the deceased – not unlike certain plains tribes who purportedly wrapped the deceased in their signature or favorite blanket or hide. Many teachers and pastoral families have left Mennonite (and other) communities with treasured friendship quilts, containing squares or blocks from many of the friends and families they were leaving behind in their move. Many of the blocks in a friendship quilt are themed or represent a symbol of that person or a treasured, shared memory.
|Baby star quilt by Troy Arlee.|
Star quilts have become an essential element in friendship building and ethnic outreach amongst the tribes – perhaps a sort of quilt diplomacy. Quoting from the state guidelines, “Star quilts are a major part of the traditional Native American gift-giving. A giveaway is a ceremony that literally means to give away. It is seen as hospitality Indian style. Star Quilts are presented at naming ceremonies, memorial services, birth, deaths, graduations, weddings, powwows, and even basketball games. When a quilt is given away the maker of the quilt is giving part of themselves to another person and spreading a sense of love and friendship. Giving away a star quilt also honors the recipient and brings them joy. Today, star quilts are also used as ceremonial objects. They can be displayed as a flag or banner, carried during parades, and worn at dancing ceremonies. In addition, powwows and summer celebrations include displays of star quilts.”
|Troy Arlee of the Flathead Salish with Troy's Universe.|
I have often heard of the giveaway as a means of distributing the property of the deceased to provide for family members and those in need.
Another theme in common is the increased participation of men and boys in quilting. This is relatively widespread amongst the Amish, the Evangelical Mennonites, Brüderthaler and others. Several of the key persons in the Star Quilt club in Frazer have been men. Increasingly, it is seen as a means of expressing one’s creativity, of continuing cultural traditions and of fellowship with others through the quilting clubs and societies. Troy Arlee, a young man of Montana’s Salish Tribes has become a strong proponent of quilting as a means of self-expression and of maintaining family ties. He is pictured with his latest quilt – Troy’s Universe.
Like the displays at basketball tournaments and powwows, Mennonite heritage events are also surrounded by displays of quilts – both as a cultural exhibit and often as a means of raising money for special projects. The annual Schmeckfest celebration in Lustre, Montana, usually takes place in a quilt-lined gym – at least two of which are auctioned off every year to raise funds for the private Christian high school – one from each of the remaining Lustre Mennonite churches – the EMB and the MB.
|2012 Lustre Schmeckfest Quilts: MB "Miss Jumps Flower Pots"; (left) EMB "Schmeckfest Salsa" (Right)|
Most recently, Mennonite and Amish quilts have become a staple of the regional Mennonite Central Committee or MCC auctions. Marlys Wiens reported in 2009 as a participant in the North American MCC Relief Sale Board Meeting…. “several quilts were given to various Relief Sales around the country … [we] are challenged with developing quilts and ideas from the injustice and displacement of so many people in the world. It was great to hear their appreciation for what we [Mennonite quilters] do and it was special to hear the future challenges.”
In this vein, Mennonite quilts are, like their Native American counterparts, becoming symbols of new beginnings and a means of inter-ethnic or international quilt diplomacy. In 2011, the MCC quilting efforts demonstrated a new means of raising money and social justice awareness through quilting by creating the Food Basket Quilt (shown) to raise awareness of hunger around the world. At each regional Relief Sale or gathering, the quilt is symbolically auctioned off to raise funds for MCC’s anti-hunger campaigns. The pattern is a collection of basket quilt designs and prints of grains and foodstuffs. MCC indicates that the quilt was made from a waxed dyed Java print unique to the Congo. The next quilt is a peace quilt to be comprised of donated squares in the pattern of peace motifs significant to the donors.
|Marlys Wiens presents the Food Basket MCC Quilt.|
Coming from a community with roots in both Assiniboine and Russian Mennonite cultures, I am excited to note the shared sense of quilting as an artform and as a way of communication and relationship building between the two cultures. The notion of quilt diplomacy is peaceful and highly impactful – perhaps it will increasingly become a joint gift from the two prairie cultures to the rest of the world as a means of peace-building. I know it would be difficult to find a more beautiful means of conveying and sharing the mutually shared ethnic heritage values of the North American prairies – you simply cannot cover a person with a hand-made blanket and not feel a sense of responsibility and kinship with them. To repeat from the Montana state materials, “when a quilt is given away the maker of the quilt is giving part of themselves to another person and spreading a sense of love and friendship.” That is what it means to be Assiniboine, Salish or Brüderthaler.