Gift Shop Artist | Juanita Kelso


As visitors walk into The Heritage Center’s gift shop, the vibrant and intricate star quilts that hang on the wall are often the first items to catch their eyes.

Star Quilts have both historical and spiritual significance for the Lakota people, and are sought after by local customers and travelers alike. During the reservation era, star quilts became a common symbol of recognition and honoring as the Lakota transitioned away from their traditional, nomadic lives on the Plains. With the near extinction of the buffalo, Lakota people could no longer use hides for warmth and protection, or for ceremonies in which hides played a spiritual role. They adapted by using the textile skills taught by missionaries—and over time star quilts took on a cultural importance of their own.

While the craft of star quilting is often passed down from generation to generation, artist Juanita Kelso took it upon herself to learn how to create the beautiful star quilts that she creates today.

“I came across a book that showed step by step instructions,” she explained. “I thought I would try making one for each of my three daughters.”

Soon, her curiosity and desire to honor her daughters became more than just a personal goal. “I started making quilts just as a side project while I worked and went to school, but soon it became a hobby. [Today] the quilts I make are an expression of who I am.”

Like many Lakota textile artists, Juanita uses a quilting pattern called “lone star” as the basis for her star quilts. Made of cotton or satin, they typically feature an eight-pointed star comprised of small, intricate diamonds, sometimes further surrounded by diamonds or half-stars, using the “broken star” style. 

Quilters often incorporate other images inside the stars—and play with contrasting colors, backgrounds, and borders—to customize their quilts and express their creativity. As Juanita’s quilting skills developed, she began expressing herself more fully as a textile artist. Demand for her vibrant quilts increased, and she discovered she could also support her family by selling quilts as she works toward her degree in Human Biology at Chadron State College. Juanita began selling her quilts to The Heritage Center’s gift shop in 2013 and, like many artists, she says the additional income has made a critical difference in her life.

“Having sold to The Heritage Center, I know it is a great place to help with getting my quilts displayed,” she said. “I am a single mother who enjoys being a mom and working on quilts. But I am also a full time student and [my quilts] provide a means of income to support myself and my daughters through school.”

With her studies in full swing, Juanita often finds time to quilt during seasonal breaks, when she focuses on making enough quilts to last through another semester. And on buying days at the gift shop, she can often be found sharing her newest creations, with her daughters by her side. Now at age three, her youngest daughter has grown up visiting The Heritage Center, from being carried as an infant to helping her mother carry her colorful quilts into the gift shop. 

For Juanita, the joy of quilting—that began as a gift for her daughters—continues to represent an important family tradition.  

You can find more work by Lakota artists in The Heritage Center Gift Shop, both in-store and online:


Meet Our Artists - Shawn Espinosa, Parfleche


Meet Our Artists - Miranda Red Cloud, Porcupine Quillwork


Meet Our Artists - Amanda Simmons, Bead Work

Photos © 2016 Red Cloud Indian School, Inc.
last updated: May 16, 2016