Quilter keeps Navajo stories, cultures alive through designs
By Lemanuel Loley
WINDOW ROCK, August 23, 2012
(Special to the Times – Isaiah Montoya)
W hen Suzanne Hudson was nine years old, she picked up a needle for the first time and made a vest. Hudson's vest was made from scrap material and made by hand like most of her clothing at that time.
"Being poor, we had to sew our own clothes," she said of her childhood.
Making her own clothing at a very young age allowed Hudson, whose roots are in Sheep Springs, N.M., the practice she needed to master the art. Today, she is gaining national recognition for her award-winning "ledger" quilts.
Ledger art is a term used to describe Plains Indians narrative drawings or paintings on paper or cloth.
Hudson was inspired by the Plains Indians ideas and used it to highlight Navajo culture.
Using ledger art in her quilting is Hudson's way of honoring her ancestors. Depicted on one of her famed quilts called "Star Among the Shunkaa Wakan" are the names of Hudson's ancestors.
Hudson is a descendent of Chief Narbona and has included his name on the quilt.
"I am proud of who I am," Hudson said of her lineage.
Hudson's quilts began to gain attention during powwows.
"I would take my kids to powwows and sit them on my quilts," Hudson said.
Hudson explained that as people began complimenting her quilts, she decided to enter them into contests.
Hudson recently received awards for her quilts during the Inter-Tribal Indian Ceremonial festivities in Gallup, N.M. and past Navajo Nation Fairs. She has also been featured in the Heard Museum in Phoenix. But her biggest accomplishment is showcasing her quilts at the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian.
"Quilting has allowed me to reach out to people all over the world," Hudson said of the many people from around the world she has met when showing her work.
Although Hudson is talented, quilting is not a walk in the park.
From picking the material to the actual designing of the quilt, Hudson explained that her quilts could take as long as eight months to make.
For Hudson, the work is the worth it though because she is one of the very few Navajos making quilts.
"I'm trying to break ground," Hudson said referring to being in a white-dominated area of artwork. "I want to show that Natives quilt too."
Hudson, who is Kiyaa'aanii born for Nakai dine'e, was born and raised in Los Angeles, but has spent many summers on the reservation with her grandmother Mary Ann Foster.
Foster is an acclaimed master weaver and her home is located in Sheep Springs, N.M.
Hudson credits much of her designs to her summers spent with her grandmother.
"She would be weaving and she would teach us how to card wool," Hudson recalled of her grandmother.
To Hudson, her summers spent on the reservation were irreplaceable. Despite being labeled as "city folk" by other Navajos, Hudson cherished every minute.
"We used to herd sheep," said Hudson as she laughed, "it was fun for about ten minutes."
As Hudson grew older, she began to realize her summers with her grandmother were very important.
"There wasn't enough time for me to stay on the rez," Hudson said.
But with the time she was given, Hudson made the best of it. Listening to her grandmother's stories, Hudson began to form an appreciation for her Navajo roots.
"I like horses," Hudson said. "They remind me of the creation stories."
In many of her quilts, Hudson depicts scenes of running horses.
Another of her famed quilts called "29 Warriors" shows, just as the name implies 29 horses, each representing the original code talkers.
"I think it's telling the story of our people," Hudson said of her code talker quilt.
"I wanted to show people no matter what our ancestors endured with our language almost being taken from us, they needed us," Hudson said. "Our beautiful language changed the war."
Hudson, mother of four, now resides in Ignacio, Colo.
Hudson plans on continuing her love of quilting by putting together a book for her children and grandchildren that will highlight her designs.
"Quilting is my legacy for my descendants," Hudson said.