Prairie colors, light.
Circle of Life in star quilts.
Sunshine Star Woman.
A native Dakotan and member of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, Noelle Benson has pieced a variety of patterns in over 30 years of quilting, but she keeps coming back to the traditional Native American star quilt. It has given her a connection to her heritage.
A tragic horse accident took the life of her father, Ted Strongheart, when she was just two years old. Her mother, Tottie, was widowed with six young children. The family moved away from the Strongheart family when her mother remarried, and those connections became rare.
Growing up in the Standing Rock Indian Reservation also had challenges. The school bus that picked up Benson and her siblings was still segregated.
“The hard truth is that we are different,” she said. “I grew up not knowing traditional Lakota cultural practices. Prejudices still exist between Native Americans and their non-native neighbors, and I think at the root is a lack of respect. It was accepted when I was a child, and that is sad.”
In brokenness, she has found beauty.
NOELLE BENSON, QUILT MAKER
“I look at the prairie through the changing seasons and as different colors jump out at me, I’ll think, ‘Oh! There’s a star quilt!’”
“We don’t have a lot of family information,” Benson said. “Making star quilts is one thing I have been able to hang on to that makes me feel connected to my father and my family heritage.”
Her grandmother, Eva Strongheart, made star quilts. Although they didn’t visit her often, Benson recalls that every time they stopped to see Eva, she was sewing.
Pulling the Threads
According to Benson, traditionally, a buffalo hide was given as a gift at landmark life events, such as birth or death, a wedding, or the ceremonial transition to adulthood. “After the buffalo were all but killed off in the 1800’s, star quilts took that place,” she said.
The star is found in many Native American art forms, including quilts and beadwork. Benson may use more or fewer colors depending on the size of the quilt or if it is a custom piece, but one row of points is always a unique color that is not repeated in the quilt pattern.
“This forms a ring called the ‘Circle of Life,’” Benson said.
Though practices have shifted, the prairie remains a steady source of inspiration for Benson, who lives on a ranch in North Dakota, near Thunder Hawk, South Dakota. The dusty green of sagebrush, the tan of sandstone or gray of gumbo, the brilliant gold of cottonwood and ash leaves in the fall, the red of rosehips, the pastel blush of a blooming prickly pear, and the greens of buffalo grass and wheatgrass all stimulate her creativity.
“I am always looking at the colors,” she said. “I look at the prairie through the changing seasons and as different colors jump out at me, I’ll think, ‘Oh! There’s a star quilt!’”
As she works on the quilt, Benson prays for the person who will receive it—a practice that is integral to her craft. “It helps my creative process and, for me, is part of how I express my love and care for the person it is for.”
Piecing It Together
Benson and her older sister, Lisa, are the only ones in their generation who make star quilts in their family. She says that their mother, Tottie Lennerville, has been a lifetime source of inspiration.
“I have seen my mom do hard things in life, whether as simple as a bike ride or as complicated as grief. Through it all she has always been so creative,” said Benson. “Everything that mom did, from making nutritious meals, praying with us, to expressing herself creatively through painting, crewel or making quilts, has been long lasting in us, her children, and in our kids and grandkids. I just thought it was natural to always be creating something.”
Benson is excited to continue passing on the family’s star quilt tradition to a new generation. “My niece, Nicole Strongheart has taken one of my classes, and my niece, Sarah, just graduated from high school and she has asked me to teach her.”
With several generations in one room, she is looking forward to some family time spent sewing together.
“We’ll get together where my mom can join us, so it will be really special,” she said. “Sewing definitely should be celebrated in families and as a group.”