For Navajo/Diné artist Susan Hudson, the quilts she makes are a tribute to her ancestors and way to tell their stories and the history of the Navajo people.
Hudson, a member of the Kin Yaa Aanii (Towering House People), a clan of the Navajo Nation, lives on the Navajo Reservation in Sheep Springs, New Mexico, and has a studio near Ignacio. She will be featured with four other artists in the PBS show “Craft In America: Quilts,” which will air tonight.
Hudson said she learned to sew from her mother who was forced to sew at an “assimilation” boarding school, a history Hudson knew nothing about as a child. She said growing up, sewing was a necessity for the family.
“When we were little, we were really poor, so she started showing me how to make clothes. When we were little, we didn’t know the difference between handmade and store-bought; we were just used to the handmade stuff,” she said, adding that sewing was not her favorite activity. “When I would sew, if I didn’t do a stitch right – because I didn’t want to sew, I wanted to go outside and play, I hated sewing, I really hated it – she would say, ‘Do it right or they’re going to be mad at you.’”
Hudson said years later, when she asked her mother about her strictness at the sewing machine, her mother began to tell her about her experiences in the boarding schools, about how if she didn’t do things right, she’d get beaten.
“So that’s how I learned how to sew, and after that, I appreciated what she had taught me,” Hudson said. According to www.craftinamerica.org, in her pictorial quilts, Hudson “uses a crossover style inspired by Ledger art. Recounting history through her Ledger quilts has made Hudson an activist storyteller, chronicling the hardships endured by her ancestors.”
Hudson’s work is not to be taken lightly: Her quilts are in the collections of major museums, including the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian, and she finds the fame she has achieved a little weird, she said.
“I laugh because it’s kind of surreal to me. I say my ancestors – my grandmas and my mother are famous, not me – I always say that,” she said. “All the credit goes to my ancestors because if they hadn’t survived The Long Walk and did what they had to do to survive, I would not be here.”
“So, everything goes to them – all the praise, everything. I’ve been here telling their stories because I don’t want my ancestors, my grandmas and my mother’s voice to be closed.”
And while Hudson may not have been sewing’s biggest fan starting out, she said her art serves a purpose bigger than herself.
“I think it’s important for us to be able to tell our story because people try to tell me what they think my story is,” she said. “I am so proud of my ancestors that they did what they had to so I could be here. They prayed for us and I pray for my descendants – they’re the ones who are going to carry on the stories.”