Millie Bridwell specializes in a cherished art among her peoples – she creates and makes star quilts. Making star quilts is a process that is as complicated and challenging as learning a new language, and in some ways is just as symbolic as the giving of an eagle feather in Indian Country. In many locations throughout Indian Country, particularly Lakota Country, one can identify star quilts adorning some of the most renowned facilities, buildings, and structures as a reflection of culture. But rarely do people hear their stories, their meaning, and their significance from the people that make them.
The star quilt was adopted by many tribes during the reservation era, when tribes were displaced from their traditional homelands onto Indian reservations and witnessed the near extermination of the buffalo. The giving of buffalo hides and robes is a tradition among many tribes as an act of love, peace and respect. Giving a star quilt is one of the greatest honors among the Lakota, Dakota and other Northern Plains tribes that have traditionally hunted buffalo.
“Star quilts were given away in place of buffalo robes,” said Millie Bridwell. “The making of star quilts started as an effort to keep our tradition of giving alive.”
And even after the near intentional extinction of the buffalo, the act of giving continued its way through the dedication of women, when they learned to sew quilts. The lone star was chosen as the main design as many traditional designs emulated stars, particularly the morning star – the star that welcomes the new day. Today, star quilts are gifted in a similarly in the way buffalo hides were gifted marking significant events among a people and family. The first given at birth and the last given at death.
Many concepts and designs of artwork were forbidden both directly and indirectly during the reservation era where many traditional art forms went underground and never returned. It was during this period, however, where many peoples sought to find a new way to continue on culturally and many new concepts, designs and forms were adopted taking traditional art forms among European peoples to entirely new levels never seen before. The use of silk ribbon created ribbon shirts and dresses now widely preferred in Indian Country. The introduction of glass beads created entirely new decorations, designs that continue redefine its use and art-form. And, of course, the adopting of star quilts to honor loved ones and significant moments of a people's history.
An enrolled member of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe of South Dakota, Millie’s journey with making star quilts started only 4 years ago. Since, her work has honored dozens of families from Indian Country in times of significance, both in triumph and during mourning and several organizations in Indian Country. With such precision, creativity, and love, one would assume that her work was passed down for generations, but lo and behold, she is self-taught.
“I was inspired to start quilting after my mother passed away a little more than 4 years ago,” said Bridwell. “I realized that some people struggle to find quilts during such a difficult time and I wanted to make sure that everyone that needed a quilt could at least have one for their loved one’s final journey.”
Originally sharing it took her a week to make her first star quilt, it can now take her approximately 6 hours to complete a quilt! Her work is remarkable, with each piece unique in itself, but to Millie, each has a story.
“I strive to keep my work as true to our traditions as possible. If I can, I will avoid wholesaling to popular tourist locations to honor our culture. I know where each and every quilt I have made has gone to, including the stories behind them, and it will be my intention to ensure this continues to be part of my work,” expressed Bridwell.
“It is my greatest honor to be asked to make a loved one’s final quilt,” continued Bridwell. “I’m thankful and humbled that someone would trust me with something so important – their journey into the next world.”
To be the person that is recognized as one that makes star quilts is okay with me!” expressed Bridwell. “It makes me feel special and important. Too often do quilt makers go unseen and not acknowledged for their sacrifice.”
When asked of who has inspired her, she instantly reflected: “I owe it all to my family for constantly encouraging me and pushing me to always do my best. But also, to those who have ordered my work where they bring their heart and mind to challenge me to create one-of-a-kind quilts. They, too, are my inspiration and motivation to continue creating these beautiful pieces and to ensure that this tradition continues on.”
And as with all creators, artists, makers, both seasoned and aspiring, Millie's journey will continue.
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