Published February 20, 2017
SULPHUR, OKLAHOMA – Quilts with intricate designs handcrafted and stitched by Chickasaw elders are among those on exhibit through March 31 at the Chickasaw Cultural Center.
Some quilts were crafted by ancestors spanning generations, helping tell the story of a family’s history.
One quilt displayed in the exhibit has been a treasured keepsake in a Chickasaw family for more than 100 years. Betsy Childs’s great-great-grandmother, Betsey Porter Illetewahke Hawkins, started the “Flying Geese” quilt in 1907. It was finished by Childs’s great-grandmother, Caroline Illetewahke Hawkins Milligan, for her graduation in 1978.
Childs said “it means a lot” for her to have a quilt that was started by her great-great-grandmother, who she was named after. The quilt holds memories precious to her family’s history.
Chickasaws have used and made quilts since settlers moved through the Chickasaw Homelands in Mississippi. Some families included them among the limited possessions they were able to carry on the removal to Indian Territory (now Oklahoma).
Quilts were used in numerous ways to stay warm cold weather. They served as bed covers and makeshift shawls, and sometimes even helped keep cool drafts out of the home.
“My grandmother quilted out of necessity,” Nancy Bradshaw, who contributed quilts and squares to the exhibit, said. “They had to have quilts for winter and had no money to go out and buy any.”
Quilts were used for so many purposes it was easy for them to become worn. When quilts or blankets became tattered, they were often patched, combined with other blankets. In some, each bit of exterior cloth or interior stuffing represented a well-used blanket or a dress or shirt from a family member.
One Chickasaw woman even found an entire woman’s dress while repairing an old family quilt.
Family history was recorded in each stitch, making the quilt something that would be passed down from generation to generation.
“It’s a tradition that you learn from your mother and grandmother,” Chickasaw elder and quilter, Pauline Brown, said reminiscently. “They were great sewers.”
Quilts can take on any design that the quilt maker wishes. Some popular Chickasaw quilt designs include the Indian girls and boys and animals with their Chickasaw names. The quilt exhibit includes those designs and much more, including double wedding ring designs and quilts that have been created uniquely by the artist.
“Quilting is something that if you want to finish it you’ve got to stay with it. It takes a while,” Chickasaw elder, Rose Shields-Jefferson said. “In the end it’s worth it, because you’re going to appreciate it.”
Today, Chickasaw artisans quilt for the same reason any other person quilts—artistic expression, as a blanket for warmth or as a gift. Quilts have evolved into an item that many Chickasaw families cherish.
Each quilt, handmade with love, contains precious memories making them unique to each Chickasaw family.
“My mother told me that I was making memories when I started quilting,” Bradshaw said with a smile. “I believe I am and I love doing it.”
“It’s something that you treasure. Something that your mom did and we are still carrying on what she taught us,” Jefferson said.
Pauline Brown, Rose Jefferson, Betsy Childs, Nancy Bradshaw, Jason Reed, Candice Blevins, Mary Watson, Charlie Nelson, Imogene Imotichey-Walker, the Holisso Research Center and members of the Chickasaw Language Committee were involved with contributing quilts and pieces to the exhibit.
Other contributors include the late Irene Seeley, Judy Smith, Victoria Bradshaw, Nathamay Brown-Smith, Minnie Shields, Betty Dodd and Dorothy Bailey David.
Don’t miss the opportunity to experience the stories that these quilts tell in their own subtle way.
The Chickasaw Cultural Center is located at 867 Charles Cooper Memorial Road, Sulphur, Oklahoma. For more information, call (580) 622-7130 or visit www.chickasawculturalcenter.com.