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Karen Musgrave (KM): This is Karen Musgrave and I am doing a Quilters' S.O.S. - Save Our Stories interview with Irene Bigeagle. We are at the American Indian Center in Chicago, Illinois. Today's date is December 10, 2008. It is 2:15 in the afternoon. Irene, thank you for doing this interview with me. Tell me about the block that you selected.

Irene Bigeagle (IB): I selected the block, of course, she is one of my patron saints and her name is Kateri [Mohawk for Catherine as it is pronounced in French.] Tekakwitha [translates literally to "she moves things."] and she was born in 1600's [1656 to a Mohawk warrior and a Catholic Algonquin woman.]. She passed on when she was twenty-four years old [April 17, 1680.]. From an early age, she was interested in her religion, helping the poor and the sick. Her parents and her brother died of smallpox. Her whole family died and she survived but the disease left her with scars and poor eye sight and unable to get around too well. She was sickly. She did a lot of things good. She was baptized when she was in her early teens by the Black Bulls at that time. She declared herself a bride of Christ at an early age. She went on to do her works of mercy and she made all her sacraments. She left her home in New York and she traveled on the rivers to Canada to get away from a man that her father wanted her to marry. She won't accept that. She wanted to be what she wanted to be. She chose to be a life with Christ. When she got to Canada, she did all her good works and she was very religious. She helped with the poor and she did some miraculous things and when she got sick she couldn't carry on no more. She was twenty-four years old when she passed away. Her face was pox marked from the smallpox and at the moment of her death her face cleared up. It was just as beautiful as any young lady. Anyway, she was declared Venerable [by Pope Pius XII on January 3, 1943.] and then Pope John Paul [II.] declared her Blessed [the first Native American to be so honored.]. Now she needs one more miracle to be declared a saint. We are hoping that it happens soon. We have a Kateri Tekakwitha Circle and it is held once a year at different states where all the natives go to this Kateri Tekakwitha conference. It has been held for seventy some years now. Every year it is held a different state. Last year was in Edmonton Alberta, Canada, and the last news we got there were possible miracles that they are looking into, investigating. Hopefully we are praying that she becomes a saint very soon.

KM: Tell me about the different elements in your block.

IB: The picture I got was like this with a river and she is facing out. That curve is the cedar trees and these are mountains I think or something. That brown. [pointing to the mountains.] The flower, [pointing to the flower in the block.] the Tiger Lily. I'm told that when she died the Lily was plain but all those spots appeared on the Lily so they call her Lily of the Mohawks. Lily of the Mohawks she is known as Kateri Tekakwitha. I still have some things to do.

KM: What do you have left to do?

IB: Decorate her dress. Do her hair up a little bit and then I will be finished.

KM: How long have you been involved with the Ancestor Quilt Project?

IB: Since Diane has been around. I think this is our second year. [the project began in June 2007.]

KM: How many panels have you made?

IB: I made the eagle. The eagle was my first one and there is the eagle and I did the cucumber plant and a picture of a lady. I got that picture [the image for the panel was taken from a painting by Diane Green.] from Diane. I liked it so I decided to make it. I don't remember what the name of it was. I did.

KM: Why did you choose the cucumber plant?

IB: Why?

KM: Um, hum.

IB: I liked the flowers. I like the flowers. From the plant I like the flowers. Oh here, "Squirting Cucumber" [reading the name embroidered on the block.]. I thought the flowers and leaves were very pretty so I decided to make it. Oh this is the one I made- "The Harmony and Love." [shows KM the other block that she did.]

KM: Very nice embroidery. Do you like to embroider?

IB: I never did before. This was my first one, the eagle. It was the first one I ever made. Diane taught me all the stitches.

KM: What is your favorite part?

IB: Oh then I made the tobacco plant. This is a tobacco plant. Then the Kateri, that is how many I have done so far.

KM: Pretty good.

IB: My next project is a buffalo.

KM: Tell me about your interests in quiltmaking.

IB: To me it is fun and it's like therapy. It is like a therapy. I'm seventy-eight years old and it is a good pastime for me. Instead of sitting there watching TV all night, sometimes I would be up at 12:00, 1:00, 2:00 doing my stitching. It is good for me. I widowed and I live by myself. It keeps me busy and entertains me then after I finish a panel I admire it.

KM: What are the plans for all the panels?

IB: What are the plans, well we will be making the animal spirits, I will be making more animals and ancestors, ancestors. I have yet to get pictures of my grandfathers. My grandfather, both my parents are gone and make a panel with a picture of my ancestors. That will go on the ancestor quilt. Then I might make Crazy Horse.

KM: Why Crazy Horse?

IB: Why, or the other one, what is his name. The other one. That's Crazy Horse, the other one, Geronimo. Either one of them, I haven't decided which.

KM: You could do both.

IB: I could. As long as I have the material I will make them. After the buffalo I think the ancestors after I finish my buffalo then go on from there, whatever else I make.

KM: What is your favorite part about making the quilts, the panels?

IB: My favorite part?

KM: What do you like the best?

IB: I think making the face come alive like the picture and other subjects. Even the animal. Like my eagle. Those eyes are-- [pause.]

KM: Very expressive.

IB: Yes.

KM: You did a good job. They are very expressive eyes. They are very alive.

IB: I try to make them come alive is what I want to do.

KM: I can see that your work is improving too. You are getting much more detailed.

IB: Yeah that is what I aim to do.

KM: Tell me a little bit about the Ancestor Quilt Project.

IB: Well Diane mentioned the Ancestor Quilt Project. First she asked me if I was interested and so I thought about it and said, 'I was not into sewing.' I used to crochet and that was a long time ago too. I used to do it for therapy after my husband passed away and then I decided why not. I still have a few good years left. As long as my eyes are good and my fingers are able to do it, so why not. I will work with her as long as we can.

KM: Is there anything else you would like to add?

IB: I just hope more people enroll in the Ancestor Quilt, or the Quilt Project. It would turn out to be so nice to see them all.

KM: What advice would you give somebody starting out?

IB: Patience. [laughs.] Patience and don't give up even if you prick your finger a few times, that happens. Stings for a while but you get over it. Just keep on. Do your best. Each one I hope will get better, better than the last. I like doing the borders on them too after I finish the picture.

KM: You like the solid and then the print?

IB: Try to match a good color combination.

KM: You do a good job.

IB: Yeah, we pick our own. We go through that bag of rags and we pick out what looks good with them.

KM: Did you help with the hand dying of those fabrics?

IB: Um, hum.

KM: Tell me about the natural dyeing of the fabric.

IB: That was my first time and I still don't know my plants. She [Diane Green.] was putting them in the pot, she would tell me which ones they were and what color they would be. So we put the materials in there and then put a tee shirt or two in different ones. We would tie them up with rubber bands and make tye dye tee shirts. They came out real nice. Then the tye dye material will be used for the borders on our quilts. You've seen them over there that she had.

KM: Did you like the natural dye? Playing with the natural dye?

IB: They are pretty colors. It is different. Instead of buying your materials from the store. I don't know, maybe its got more meaning when you dye your own fabrics.

KM: Do you ever have any plans of making something that you will keep?

IB: I don't know yet. I might. Maybe make one and put it in a picture frame, but I don't know which it will be. Usually I make something, I always give it away. So I might just make something and give it to someone. Probably an animal.

KM: Is that your favorite subject matter animals? Do you like animals the best?

IB: Yeah, animals and flowers, plants. I love plants. I probably be making plants.

KM: Is there anything else you would like to add?

IB: No I think that is about it.

KM: Thank you very much. We are going to conclude our interview at 2:35.