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The Broken Promises of American Indian Treaties, Sewn onto Quilts

Gina Adams sews text from the American Indian Treaties onto quilts, articulating the deception and violence used to marginalize Native Americans in the formation of the United States.

Gina Adams, “Broken Treaty Quilt: Fort Laramie” (1868) (back) (photo by Aaron Paden, all images courtesy the artist)

This past fall, a broad swath of artists created a new body of overtly political art in support of the uprising at Standing Rock, as Hyperallergic reported in November. For the past three years, however, artist Gina Adams has been at work on a slower, softer form of protest: by sewing select text from the American Indian Treaties onto antique quilts, she’s articulated the deception and violence used to marginalize Native Americans in the formation of the United States. Among these Broken Treaty Quilts is the 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie — the agreement that defined the Great Sioux Reservation, which originally encompassed the entire Western half of South Dakota, including Standing Rock.

Gina Adams, “Broken Treaty Quilt: Kiowa and Commanche” (1867) (front) (photo by Aaron Paden, Collection of the Nerman Museum)

“Most all of [the more than 370 treaties] have been broken, in many different forms,” Adams said in an interview. “The language in all of them is very contrived and very confusing. The words turn on themselves.” Alluding to such unintelligibility, the appliquéd letters in her quilts are hand-cut from calico, and are not always immediately legible.

Beyond the treaties’ intentionally obscure wording, many of the promises within them have been broken by the US over the centuries. Adams offered, “Treaties were broken almost immediately with no allotments of financial payment and promised food stores and hard goods of fabric, clothing, and buildings promised to be built.” She also indicated the Lone Wolf vs. Hitchcock decision of 1903, which allowed, and continues to allow, US law to break with individual treaty articles.

Benign in appearance, the quilts are subversive in their hybrid identity as documents and textiles — a form broadly considered a staple of American (and particularly European American) folk art. It should not be overlooked that the blanket, in general, was an object weaponized by colonizers who used them as vehicles for spreading disease.

Adams is a descendant of both indigenous and colonial Americans. Her grandfather was Ojibwe, and was forcefully enrolled in the Carlisle Indian Industrial School — an assimilationist boarding school for Native Americans — at the age of eight. Because her grandfather passed on the Ojibwe names of Adams’s ancestors, she was able to find records of them while working in 2015 as a Smithsonian Artist Research Fellow. She also traced her lineage back to John Adams, the second US President.

Gina Adams: Its Honor is Here Pledged installation view at Nerman Museum, Colorado (photo by E.G. Schemph)

“I’ve always had these two sides within me,” said Adams, “the inherited trauma of my American Indian ancestors, and also the colonizers, the founders of our country.”

Adams first studied the American Indian treaties in depth while in graduate school, though she did not complete her first quilt until several years later, in 2014. The work emerged from her 2013 Basketball Assimilation Banners. On one side of each of the seven banners are phrases such as “Inherited Memory” and “Blood Trauma,” gleaned from conversations with Native American students enrolled at Haskell Indian Nations University. On the opposite side of each banner is an image of an Indian Peace Medal — objects that are, like the treaties, specious for their ultimate emptiness.

A month after completing the Assimilation Banners, Adams purchased an antique quilt while visiting her mother in Massachusetts. That night, she said, she dreamed of inscribing it with a treaty. “Once I started placing letters on the quilt,” Adams said, “I felt like I really had something that could have a political voice, perhaps make change, and also speak to the duality of my heritage.”

Installation view of Gina Adams’s Basketball Assimilation Banners at the Nerman Museum (photo by E.G. Schemph)

Currently, five of Adams’s 16 completed quilts are on view in Its Honor is Here Pledged at Colorado’s Naropa University, where she is in residence. Throughout the course of the exhibition, she has offered weekly readings from the treaties, wrapping herself in the corresponding quilt — “language over language over language,” she called it. She hopes to eventually create a quilt for every recorded treaty.

“My work is both a political statement and an apology,” Adams said. “Inherited trauma is real. We have a lot of healing to do, and we can’t do it alone. We have to do it collectively.”

Gina Adams reading one of the treatises at Naropa University’s art gallery

Gina Adams: Its Honor is Here Pledged continues at Naropa University’s School of the Arts galleries (Nalanda Campus at 6287 Arapahoe Avenue, Boulder, Colorado) through March 3. 

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