Gift Shop Artists | Denise Brown Eyes and Kristina Iron Cloud
In Denise Brown Eyes’ family, quilting is an artform that has been passed down from one generation to the next. Growing up on the Pine Ridge Reservation, her first role models were her many aunts who taught her to sew blankets and clothes for her dolls. As she grew up, Denise learned to make more intricate quilts using a range of patterns and colors. Although she had a separate career, Denise would sew with her sister in her spare time. Soon they began receiving orders for their intricate star quilts, often used in Lakota honoring ceremonies.
Over the last decade, Denise has passed her love of quilting on to another family member—her daughter Kristina Iron Cloud.
“My mom and I would have long conversations and she would tell me stories of her history—things I never knew about. It became a tale, or kind of an oral history of her life, and we truly got to know each other in a whole new way. And I told her I wanted to learn to sew,” said Kristina. “I had to start by learning to cut material properly and it was so hard—it took me such a long time to learn. But pretty soon I was sewing along with her. And, even now, we have so many stories to share with one another. That’s what makes it so meaningful to me—and why I chose to quilt.”
Denise helped Kristina perfect her technique and they began quilting together, eventually launching their own small business from their homes in Rapid City. They specialize in creating star quilts made of a less traditional fabric—satin rather than cotton—to create uniquely vibrant designs. Since Denise’s retirement from full-time work, sales from her quilting have represented an important supplement to her income. But above all, she has loved having the chance to focus her time on her beloved craft.
“I never really considered myself an artist—not like people who do beadwork or who paint,” said Denise. “But the more I think about it, it’s truly a craft you have to get good at over time. You have to know a lot about colors and what goes together, and about technique and all that goes along with it. I was talking about it to Kristina recently and I guess we are artists!”
It took time for Denise and Kristina to build their small business. They worked with Lakota Funds, a community development organization that promotes economic sustainability on Pine Ridge, to get started. Denise eventually wrote a grant to buy a quilting machine—a major investment that can cost $5,000 or more. But their hard work paid off and today their business is growing steadily, with orders increasing from individuals and organizations like The Heritage Center.
“I’ve made quilts for a number of organizations for nearly 50 years, but more recently we’ve been able to expand a bit, and it’s exciting that we’re getting orders from out-of-state and around the country,” said Denise. “But it’s also very relaxing for me to spend time making things and being innovative—to think about size and bindings and all the variables that go into a quilt. We experiment a lot and it’s really fun.”
For Kristina, working alongside her mother and learning to quilt has been a gift—and something she’s been able to share by teaching her craft to others. In Lakota communities, sewing circles and gatherings have provided space and opportunities to build connections and share techniques. Recognizing a need to build those kinds of bonds among Native people living away from the reservation in Rapid City, Kristina and her cousin began fundraising to organize their own Lakota sewing circle every other Saturday in the Oyate Community Center.
“Our mission was to bring people back together by sharing different artforms—and we encouraged people to share their skills, or to come and learn new things,” said Kristina. “We put up flyers and talked to people, but for the first three months no one came and we were so discouraged. But soon people did start showing up—and since then it has continued to grow. First there is a meal for people to share and then everyone gets to work. We have 12 sewing machines and get lots of donations of boxes of fabric. There are grandmothers in the group, but also men and kids all spending time together. It really feels like a community.”
Today Kristina is finishing her nursing degree at Oglala Lakota College while caring for her two young daughters, and finds it is often challenging to fit quilting into her schedule. But the additional income is helping her to cover the costs of her education. And she is always grateful to work side-by-side with her mother to deepen her knowledge and share new stories.
“When my mom began to teach me, she told me that I needed to learn in the right way. She wasn’t always an easy teacher. She’d tell me when I needed to rip out stitches and start again—which is the hardest thing in the world when you’re just starting out,” said Kristina. “But learning from her, that’s what made us really, really close. And that’s what makes me most proud to be quilting—that I got this from her.”
You can find more work by Lakota artists in The Heritage Center Gift Shop, both in-store and online:
Photos © 2017 Red Cloud Indian School, Inc.
last updated: April 1, 2017