Quilling promises into hope
The thing with promises is that, as well-intentioned as I might be in making one, usually I am left pacing around trying to remember exactly what I promised. Doomed! The thing with hope is that, as positive as I might be in having it, sometimes I am left shuddering at the mention of the word itself. But wait, there is something good here.
Before I ventured off on a cross-country road trip in May 2019, a trip home to the places where I grew up in Ohio and Michigan and hadn’t been in 40 years, I had begun to share some personal writings in remembrance of my beloved friend Miya. Diagnosed with lung cancer in December 2018, she learned in January 2019 that it had spread to her brain; she died in late February 2019.
In January of last year, distressed that she was losing herself and all things precious to her, Miya asked me to help her re-member her life through songs and stories. I promised that I would dig up some of our old songs and write several new, short narratives about our experiences together – what we shared, valued, and loved, and what she taught me. Snippets about her, her tribe, the reservation, and us. I would sing songs and tell stories to her over the phone and write others down for her caregivers to read to her.
What began as a routine of storytelling across the miles between my home in Oregon and hers in South Dakota turned into something more urgent as she became sicker, gradually losing her mobility, memory, and sensory perception. I traveled to South Dakota to take her home to her ancestral home on Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, and I stayed with her until she died.
In South Dakota, Miya asked me to share some of our songs and stories publicly, not only with her Oglala Lakota tribal community but also through my WordPress.com blog Into the Woods. Miya believed that sharing our stories would have healing power. She believed that through storytelling, we could change people’s hearts and minds, create love, draw people closer to each other, heal each other, and help heal the land.
Fearful of the anxiety that always comes after sharing something significant, I proceeded slowly. The fact that I had been very private about my relationship with Miya through the years made me hesitant to be suddenly so public. It felt at times that I was standing on one side of a river, uncertain of how wide the crossing, how deep the water, and how swift the current. I believed I could cross over; I was not sure, however, that I wanted to or should. After Miya died, I paced around, uncertain about whether I had fulfilled my promises or not. I kept writing through winter into spring, until I needed to stop, shifting my attention to a road trip back east.
Last May, in my hometown of Wapakoneta, Ohio, I stood on the proverbial river shore, on each of the north and south shores of the Auglaize River, the river beside which my childhood home stood. On a road trip that spanned 16 days, 15 states, and 5,550 miles, I explored the shores of many rivers, walked riverside pathways, stood on bridges, and gazed at river currents upstream and downstream. I looked at all that water flowing over dams and under bridges, and I crossed those bridges. On the Auglaize River in my hometown, I made several crossings, looping around and across, across and back, returning and leaving again. Circles. Like my writing process.
Before I sit at my laptop and enter my writings here on my blog Into the Woods, I sit with a writing pad and pen in hand and work for a long time. I leave it. I come back to it. I work for a longer time. I rest. I look at it again. It is hard to finish. It is hard to be satisfied with it. I have so clearly in my mind a memory, a splendid memory that I am trying to capture with words, or an idea I am trying to express. My mind tells me something in a picture, but I find I cannot decipher all of it. I keep trying, writing and rewriting, until I decide that there may not be words to make me completely content with it. But if there is something in what I’ve written that comforts me, I finally call it good, good enough.
In the flow of swollen rivers across the country in May, I re-membered myself, not only in relation to home, people, events, and choices in my life, but also in relation to how I frame the stories of my life. I returned home to Oregon and took a lot of time to think things over. After writing about my road trip, writings you can find in the category Cheryl and Dixie Road Dogs, I decided to revisit my writing assignment for Miya, not because of any worry about whether I had fulfilled my promises to her, but because I had learned that storytelling does have healing power.
Hunka, you are quilling stories. You have Porcupine medicine in your pen. – Miya, January 2019
Over the phone one day in January of last year, Miya said to me, “Hunka, you are quilling stories. You have Porcupine medicine in your pen.” I liked the metaphor of quilling stories, but I was not sure about porcupine medicine. I can be prickly, but I try to keep that out of my writing. I have regretted the barbed quill released in irritation through an email at work and do not wish my words to cause pain.
Porcupine quilling is an ancient Native American art form used among the Great Plains tribes; it is perhaps the oldest form of Native embroidery (read more here). Traditional Indian quillwork of more than 200 years ago involved softening, flattening, and dying stiff porcupine quills and weaving them onto leather or birchbark. Quillworkers gathered various plants to make the dyes – buffalo berry (red), sunflower (yellow), hickory nut and black walnut (brown), moosewood (green), larkspur (blue), blueberry and blackberry (purple), wild grape (black) – and soaked the quills in large pots until they were rich with color. Then they spread the quills out to dry, after which they rubbed the quills with animal oil to keep them from becoming brittle. Using sinew stripped from tendons on each side of a bison or deer backbone, the quillworkers folded, twisted, wrapped, plaited, and sewed the quills to decorate articles of clothing, bags, knife sheaths, baskets, wooden tool handles, pipe stems, jewelry, mats, and other things.
In private collections housed on Pine Ridge and Rosebud Indian reservations and in collections showcased in museum exhibits in Oregon and California, I have seen magnificently embroidered war shirts and robes, moccasins, bandolier bags, birchbark boxes, baskets, belts, cradleboards, jewelry, tools, and other objects of Native life. I have seen intricate and colorful quillwork designs of bears, eagles, hawks, horses, wolves, flowers, and trees on sweetgrass baskets, and highly abstract designs on buffalo and elk hides. They are exquisite pieces of remarkable art and storytelling. Some museum exhibits, however, give the impression that as a result of U.S. government policies of assimilation, quillwork embroidery died out as a living art form. Not so in the Great Plains. The Lakota Indians revived the art form. It is integral to their active survival as a people and culture (read more here).
To explain the significance of traditional quillwork, Miya told me an Oglala Lakota Sioux legend about the mythical being called Winyan Nunpakiya (WEE-yah NU-pah-kee-yah), meaning “double woman” or “woman in two places.” The legend tells the story of when the first woman learned to make art. Double Woman, who looked like two women (or twins) tied together, appeared in a woman’s dream to teach her the use of quills. The dreamer, in turn, taught other women how to use quills, and they formed quilling societies, cooperatively undertaking tasks too arduous for a woman to do on her own. The legend celebrates not only the sacred act of a woman creating her individual art, but also the solidarity of women helping women and the power of women projecting their art into the world.
Over the years, Miya told me a few stories in which Double Woman appeared. I don’t remember them well enough to re-tell them, but as a twin, I still find the mythical “double woman” intriguing. An online search about the quillwork legend from Miya’s tribe led me to a fascinating journal article, “Dreaming of Double Woman: The Ambivalent Role of the Female Artist in North American Indian Myth.” The writer asserts that the mythology of Double Woman not only celebrates the artistry and power of women but also warns of the perils of women’s artistic endeavors. There are many themes to ponder: What happens when a woman becomes too absorbed in her art and no longer leads a balanced life? What happens when a woman becomes too involved in her guild activities and neglects her domestic duties? What happens when a woman becomes unwilling to share her artistry, both the product and the technical processes and tools of creating it? What happens when a woman makes art in a way that upsets the social norms of a group or a family?
Miya continued the ancient tradition, quilling medicine bags, bracelets, necklaces, brooches, hat bands, and small articles of clothing, and excelled at modern beadwork, beading dolls, bags, hat bands, necklaces, and bracelets. As a skilled artisan and teacher, she weaved the old with the new, keeping ancient traditions alive and making the art form more accessible. I loved her designs and have several items that she made for me. She minimized her own talent and skill, however, often comparing and contrasting her quillwork, beadwork, and ledger art to the award-winning contemporary quillworkers and artists she so admired in her Oglala Lakota Sioux tribe of South Dakota and other tribes in Montana, Colorado, Arizona, and New York. Miya spoke with great admiration of their highly complex designs and the layers of meaning they created. Her home was full of a vast array of Native art.
Miya’s ancestors created stunning pieces that are now cherished tribal heirlooms – well, the quilled buckskin clothing and regalia that survived destruction and burning by U.S. soldiers in the mid-to-late 1800s, that is (there’s the prickly porcupine in me). In telling the quillwork legend, she was proud that with her tribe’s transition from pre-reservation life to the reservation era, Lakota women took on the role of storytellers and translators of tribal history in their art, often at great risk. Miya believed that without the continued artistry of women, their culture would come to an end.
In remembering Miya’s art, I think of all the other women in my life who have created and shared their beautiful art through singing, songwriting, gardening, cooking, knitting, sewing, piano playing, dancing, painting, drawing, photography, woodworking, computer art, body art, fashion, home-decorating, basket-weaving, jewelry-making, storytelling, and writing. From the flannel pajamas sewn for me by my mother; to nature photographs taken, matted, and framed for me by my older sister; to paintings created for me by my twin sister; to treasures beaded for me by Miya; to pie recipes shared with me and a love post created for me by friends back east; to sweet garden-grown berries and tomatoes shared with me from friends here at home; to greeting cards handmade and rocks hand-painted for me by friends; to a group of women sharing their music in choir; and to women who support each other’s creative expression at WordPress.com, I have been enriched by women’s artistry and their willingness to share it.
Almost three decades ago, I watched Miya quill a hat band with porcupine quills on a leather hide, and glass beads around the edges. No art form made her feel more vulnerable, she said, than quilling.
Speaking softly over the phone last January, recalling her joy of quilling, Miya explained how weaving the quills into the leather made her heart open. “Like Porcupine, I’d go belly-up, my quills stuck in the ground,” she remembered. “I’d regain my hope.”
I was puzzled by that. Contrary to what I had associated with porcupines, Miya was describing Porcupine as a gentle, loving, playful, non-fearful, and non-aggressive creature – like Cat or Dog, who goes belly-up when it feels happy and playful, inviting us to rub its belly, but raises the fur on its spine like quills when it feels threatened, warning us to keep our distance. I didn’t ask her what she meant about Porcupine medicine and hope. She had struggled to say that much. I listened.
This past December, though, I had the opportunity to ask another member of her tribe about Porcupine. Miya’s statement to me, “You have Porcupine medicine in your pen,” had stuck with me, as had the image of a porcupine belly-up, but I still wasn’t sure what it all meant. I knew, of course, that everything has a flip side.
Red Feather, my escort and protector on the reservation, explained to me that in their tribe’s tradition, Porcupine is a gentle, loving creature who holds the medicine of faith and trust. If Porcupine comes into our life, our task is to find the pathway most beneficial for us and use our talents to travel that path. The power of faith is that it can help us overcome fear. The power of trust is that it can open doorways to our minds and hearts, allowing us to accept love and goodness from others and Mother Earth.
Meanings began to take shape for me. So how did Porcupine relate to my writing, the medicine in my pen, I asked Red Feather.
“The crux of the matter,” he said, “is that Miyaca believed in you and the love you two shared. She believed in your ability to help her on her journey home to Wakan Tanka. And she believed in your ability to comfort us and yourself through stories. Stories that only you could tell.”
There it was again, all that sorrow and all that love. After a quiet pause, Red Feather and I had a good talk about loss, sorrow, love, fear, faith, trust, generosity, hope. I was feeling in short supply of Porcupine’s faith, trust, and hope. I was also feeling in short supply of Coyote’s joy and humor (Miya’s Indian name, Miyaca, is a Siouan wording meaning “coyote”).
Red Feather is a gentle and good man; he helped me understand that the porcupine medicine in my pen is like the narrative in Miya’s quillwork, both retrospective and forward looking. It is good medicine and, like all good medicine, it takes time to work. It might fail, but I must continue to practice it. Although sorrow will always be present within me, I need to have faith in my ability to appreciate and enjoy each new day. Regarding trust, as my mother once said to me, “Trust is like churning butter, Cheri. It needs to be made fresh daily. And the more you churn it, the more solid it becomes.”
Like Miya seated on the floor with her colorful quills and Porcupine flipped on its back with its quills stuck in the ground, I, too, might regain my hope. Hope, “the thing with feathers” that Emily Dickinson praises in her poem, is a word that has more than once in life made me shudder, when I thought I had lost it or it had failed me. I have recently come to a new understanding. Quilling hope anticipates goodness. It does not expect a specific outcome.
I do not know where my quilled stories belong, but I will tell them – carefully, being mindful of both sides of Porcupine in me. In whatever spirit people receive my stories, I will at least have shared them, and that is important. In addition, I will continue to support and encourage other women in creating and sharing their art.
An Indian woman sits in the moonlight making porcupine quillwork. Near her there is a kettle of herbs boiling. As she puts down her quillwork to stir the kettle, her dog unravels her work. As fast as she sews, the dog unravels her work. If she should ever finish her quillwork, the world will end at that instant. – Oglala Lakota Sioux story
Composed January 15-18, 2020