Tribute: Celebrating the Life of Margaret Hill

Last month, First Peoples Fund learned about the passing of 2008 Community Spirit Award recipient Margaret Hill. This month, e-Spirit spoke with artists impacted by Hill to talk about how her legacy still lives on today.

There are moments—like when she is working late at night beading a dress or altering a pattern—that the voice of mentor Margaret Hill echoes in Sandra Blake's head.

"I keep hearing her say, 'Rip it... do it again,'" Blake said, laughing. "If something wasn't perfect, she would have made me take the seams out and do it again. I think about that quite often."

Hill's persistence, quality work and deep commitment to her tribe and culture have not been forgotten with her passing. Hill passed away May 27, 2009, at the age of 80.

She was a member of the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe in Minnesota, and was a First Peoples Fund Community Spirit Award honoree in 2008.

"She touched many people in the community and larger statewide area with her artwork and knowledge," Blake said. "It was a great loss for the community when she passed."

Her traditional artwork included birchbark/sweetgrass, beading and leather, but Blake said she was skilled at so many things, including sewing and tanning. Storytelling was also a skill she had honed over the years through her work with children in tribal schools. Hill also taught traditional crafts for the Minnesota Historical Society's Mille Lacs Indian Museum and Trading Post.

A year before her passing, Hill said she was humbled and honored to continue the traditions of her ancestors:

"Creating quality art reflects directly back onto my people and community as well as myself," she wrote in her application for the Community Spirit Award. "I am happy that my work helps to represent my people in a quality way."

Blake said spending time with Hill always meant gaining a deeper understanding of tradition.

"She was my mother's cousin and we both learned a lot from her," she said.

Hill had a way of weaving history and traditional lessons into her work with the community, Blake said.

"Very casually and unexpectedly, her teachings of sacredness and value would come out in her words and actions while making different pieces," Blake added. "She may be tracing out a pattern on birchbark and talking about keeping the edges off of the knots in the bark and she will go into a story about the Old People. You knew you were always going to come away with more than just the knowledge of how to make an item."

Blake said she hopes to honor Hill by continuing to learn from other elders in the community, and by practicing the traditions passed on by Hill, which was one of the lessons she always embodied.

"I learned a lot of stuff, but when you don't practice it, you forget it," she said.

Jodell Meyer, who also nominated Hill for the Community Spirit Award, said she was a teacher, mentor, best friend and co-worker.

"She was open and honest," Meyer said. "She filled me with knowledge and never gave up on me."

Meyer said she too is determined to continue the traditions and skills Hill taught her. Her warmth and generosity is missed, she added.

"She was a self reliant person who understood the values of being strong and independent," she said. "She never asked for anything and was always extremely generous with what she had."