Lakota Quilts

The Lakota are one of seven Sioux tribes. Their lands are currently in North and South Dakota. Before colonialism, the buffalo provided their food, clothing, tipi covers, and many other forms of subsistence. Buffalo hides decorated with painting and quill work were used to symbolize social status, heal the sick, promote childbearing, and record important events.

Why does the pattern on this hide show concentric circles? See if you can make a guess after reading the words of Black Elk, a Lakota medicine man:

"Everything the Power of the World does is done in a circle.... Birds make their nest in circles, for theirs is the same religion as ours. The sun comes forth and goes down again in a circle.... The life of a man is a circle from childhood to childhood, and so it is in everything where power moves. Our tepees were round like the nests of birds, and these were always set in a circle, the nation's hoop".

- John Neihardt Black Elk Speaks: Being the Life Story of a Holy Man of the Oglala Sioux (1961)

In the 1870s, U.S. Secretary of the Interior Columbus Delano and others began a systematic attempt to exterminate the buffalo to destroy Native American resistance. The Lakota gradually began to use the quilting techniques that had been introduced by European missionaries to create new fabrics. But they wanted to keep the tradition of concentric circles. The star quilt pattern was the best match.

Star quilts are still a symbol of Sioux resistance and survival today. In 2011, Native American leaders from the Lakota and other communities traveled to Washington DC to protest the Keystone XL Pipeline. This pipeline would threaten Native water, burial grounds, and other sites with possible oil spills and contamination. But the construction continued.

In 2015 President Obama visited South Dakota to give a commencement speech, so Sioux artist DeVon Burshiem was asked to create a star quilt to present to the president. Unknown to anyone, she had stitched the letters NOKXL for "No keystone xl pipeline" on the back. When the secret message was later revealed, it created a great deal of media attention for the protest. Perhaps because of this new attention, President Obama suspended work on the pipeline until a more complete environmental and social impact study could be carried out.

Video by permission of creators Deb Wallwork, Laura Youngbird and Mike Hazard. Thanks also to students and teachers at Circle of Nations School in Wahpeton, North Dakota.

Creating your Virtual Quilt:

The Lakota star quilt is made from diamond shapes. As you move out from the center, each circle of diamond shapes usually takes on a different color. For example, the center circle in this quilt is yellow. You can make that by flipping the diamond on its edge, then stamping the image, eight times. So the list of changes -- what computer scientists call an algorithm--looks like this.

The next circle out in this example is orange. It does the same edge flip, but then follows that by a sliding motion called “translate”. So it makes twice as many diamonds in the orange circle. Each ring going out will simply add more “translate” moves. We usually think of algorithms only in computers, but clearly the Lakota had pattern algorithms long before computers were made, and the circle meant more to them than just another shape.

Click here to run the simulation to see what we mean!