By Sarah Elisabeth Sawyer (Choctaw Nation), Artist in Business Leadership Fellow 2015
Never forgetting the rights and rituals of intricate quillwork, Deborah carries ancient traditions of her ancestors forward to the 21st century. She conducts every phase with respect and gratitude for those who perfected these techniques. “It was like I rediscovered my sense of tribal identity when I started doing traditional work,” Deborah said.
She relies on people letting her know of roadkill where she often harvests the porcupine quills on sight, then leaves tobacco and prayers.
Before she starts a new piece, Deborah browses her collection of books, photos, and other visuals. “My mind starts thinking of how I can apply these images to contemporary life,” she said. “What everyday things do my people use and appreciate now? How will this be appreciated in the future?”
There often isn’t interest in quillwork among her relatives or friends until they see one of Deborah’s stunning pieces. They ask her to teach them. But only if they obtain their rights — preferably from a tribal elder — and pluck their own quills will she begin the teaching process.
This is the approach Deborah took with the new quill worker she’s mentoring through her First Peoples Fund Cultural Capital fellowship. After obtaining his rights, 16-year-old Kemuel Bear Medicine (Blackfeet) plucked an entire porcupine and is now creating his own pieces.
Partnering with the Museum of the Plains Indian, Deborah set Kemuel up there to demonstrate, showcase, and sell his work. While learning what it takes to be a professional artist, Kemuel is also becoming a cultural ambassador for their people. Like Deborah, he is bringing traditions forward.
“I feel that I am honoring my ancestors’ struggles,” Deborah said, “and strengthening the ties to the past that keep our identity as a people and culture.”