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: The Lost Art of Quilling


Louise Lincoln



Institution Minneapolis Institute of Arts
"Quilling—that's the hardest thing. I only do quillwork once in a while, to remind myself that I can."
—Anishinabe needlewomanFor centuries, Indian women in the Plains, Woodlands, and more northernly regions have used porcupine quills to decorate clothing and accoutrements. Known only in North America, quilling is a laborious technique because each quill must be sewn on individually, using an awl to pierce the leather garment and sinew to attach each quill. Even more labor-intensive is the preparation of the quills: After trapping or otherwise killing porcupines (itself a potentially unpleasant task), the artist must clean, sort, dye, and flatten each quill before she can begin to sew. Small wonder that when traders in the mid-19th century began to offer large quantities of small, brightly colored beads many quillers became beaders.Yet quilling persisted, perhaps by individual preference, perhaps for objects for special gifts or religious use. A spectacular quilled bag recently acquired by The Minneapolis Institute of Arts probably dates to the end of the19th century and demonstrates that some Native American women were as adept as ever at this difficult technique.Although the Institute's collections of Plains and Woodlands beadwork are rich, we have had little to show of quilling; that's why we are particularly pleased to add this unique bag to the collections. Perhaps most noticeable is its condition. Quills, like other organic materials, are fragile and subject to damage by insects. The quills on this bag are virtually intact. Most quilled pieces from the turn of the century are, like this one, colored with the aniline dyes that had just come into use, but most pieces have faded from exposure to light. This bag is so richly colored and well preserved that it was likely kept wrapped and put away, perhaps with a family's keepsakes. (Low light levels in the museum will help maintain its condition.)Traditional Plains clothing was made without pockets, and thus variously sized pouches, often decorated, were used to carry personal items. The decoration on this bag, however, may suggest a more specialized use. Against a bright red background stands a tiny quilled figure, holding a hoop in one hand and wearing a headdress topped by antlers. The antlers may well be a clue to the use and meaning of the bag itself, for they associate the bag with the Elk Dreamer cult, one of the best-known religious societies of the Lakota people.Men or women who dreamed of elk were eligible to join the society, for they had acquired special knowledge through their dreams. Elk are highly social animals, and dominant males often control several loyal females and behave aggressively against challengers, especially during mating season. Their distinctive behavior associated them with the idea of sexual prowess, and hence elk dreamers were understood to have powers to influence affairs of the heart. They could act on their own behalf or for others, using ritual and medicines. Stereotyped ideas in the broader culture about "love medicine" simplify and distort these beliefs.Figural imagery, while relatively rare in both beadwork and quillwork, was used on late 19th- and early 20th-century pieces made specifically to sell to European Americans. These tourist pieces, however, usually show conventionalized "Indian" images: a tipi or a horse and rider with a feather headdress. A bag like this one, with its esoteric image, was more likely made for use within Lakota society, perhaps by an Elk Dreamer society member to hold medicines and paraphernalia.The final clue to the bag's history lies in its most unusual attribute: the word "olotapiwin" created in all capital letters in fine quillwork above the figure. Loosely translated from Lakota, the word means a woman who borrows or rents. In the past, and to some extent in the present, Lakota people may acquire several names throughout their lifetimes, sometimes taking on new names that refer to unusual events or changes in status. Thus a term like "olotapiwin" might well be an individual's name. This kind of personal identification of a personal possession was rare among Plains people, but by the turn of the century, this practice might have been adopted from Euro-American examples.Will it be possible to track down the history of a turn-of-the-century Elk Dreamer, who was likely a skilled quill artist? Lakota people were the most numerous of Plains groups around 1900, and Lakota women were among the most prolific beaders and quillers. Genealogical records are few, and many families have endured hardships that have broken the chain of shared stories. Nonetheless, we hope that the information we have will be enough to help discover her story.Louise Lincoln is curator of African, Oceanic, and New World Cultures.This beautiful bag is currently on view in the Art of the Americas Gallery, Third Floor, West Wing.Related ImagesElk Dreamer's Society Pouch
Porcupine quills, hide, beads, tin, and feathers
The Ethel Morrison Van Derlip Fund
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Source: Louise Lincoln, "The Lost Art of Quilling," <i>Arts</i> 20, no. 4 (April 1997): 4-5.
Rights: ©MIA
Added to Site: March 10, 2009