When the Akwesasne Freedom School – located at the Mohawk Nation at Akwesasne, which straddles the border between New York and Canada on the St. Lawrence River – holds its annual quilt auction, one of the most anticipated items is the quilt made by the Piecemakers of New Paltz. For 17 years, this group of mostly women has been contributing a quilt to help support the school, which teaches children all subjects in their native Mohawk language. The Piecemaker quilts have sold for as much as $6,200, according to former longtime New Paltz resident Kay Olan, a member of the Piecemakers who now lives in Saratoga Springs and has ties to the territory (which is also known as the St. Regis Mohawk Indian Reservation).
Each year, the group has many meetings to decide on a theme, a layout and fabrics. Then, they undertake the arduous task of appliquing and sometimes embroidering and hand-sewing the quilt. Olan delivers the quilt to the school in time for the auction, which this year will be held in August. This year’s theme is “Ode to the Bees,” inspired by the crisis of Colony Collapse Disorder. Twenty quilters contributed, several of whom are native. Others come from a wide assortment of religious and ethnic backgrounds. Many of the quilters live or have lived in the New Paltz area. Some moved away but continue to be involved. Others have never lived in the area, but heard about the school and wanted to be a part of the quilt project. One quilter lives at Akwesasne and is the parent of three children who attended the Akwesasne Freedom School.
“This year, Shelley Greener, [a master quilter who designs the quilt] said, ‘Let’s make it look like beehives,’” said Susan Stessin-Cohn, a New Paltz-based educator and historian who has been with the group from the beginning. “Each block is a hexagon. We have an old-fashioned quilting bee, in which the quilt is basted, and then it gets passed around. Each person has three to four days to quilt their block. We have a farewell party, which was held last week at Woodland Pond; then it’s sent with Kay to the school to get auctioned off. Everyone waits for the New Paltz Piecemakers’ quilt, which is really important for the school.”
The quilt is the brainchild of New Paltz resident Christine Krug. Even when Christine moved to Israel for a number of years, she would still mail in her block each year to be included in the quilt. After watching a program on TV that described the poverty, high suicide rates and early deaths endemic to Native American reservations, Krug “was appalled. She consulted with Roy Black Bear, who lived in the Esopus area (and has since passed on), and said, ‘I want to do something,’” recalled Olan. “She asked him, ‘Is there a reservation out west I could fundraise for?’ He said, ‘Why look out west? We have native people here in the Northeast,’ and told her about the Akwesasne Freedom School. She called me, since my mother was from Akwesasne and I have relatives who have attended the school.” Initially Krug held a yard sale at her house to raise money for the school, which morphed into a yard scale and raffle, then a silent auction, before Krug came up with the idea for a quilt group.
Besides designing and sewing her own square, Stessin-Cohn taught quilting to neophytes who wanted to contribute. One of them was no other than Mark Okoth Obama Ndesandjo, the President’s half-brother, a concert pianist who sometimes drove up from New Jersey to contribute his blocks for the first two quilts.
The school, which was founded in 1979 and teaches students from pre-kindergarten through grade eight, teaches subjects in the context of the Mohawk culture, said Olan. “It’s run by the parents, and the curriculum is organized around the traditional Opening Address, which is also called ‘Greetings to the Natural World.’ Central to the traditions of the Mohawk people is the giving of thanks, acknowledgement and the expression of love to every part of the natural world. The students are learning to be proud of who they are.”
To ensure some consistency in the design, this year each quilter was given the same background fabric. A subcommittee sewed the completed blocks together, while another subcommittee selected the backing fabric, according to Olan. A third subcommittee basted the quilt together, and then the quilt was passed around so that each participant could quilt her own block. The back and the front were then sewn together, a label stitched to the quilt and an accompanying booklet put together, in which each quilter wrote a paragraph about her block. Olan always attends the first and last meetings, entertaining her colleagues with traditional Mohawk stories, said Stessin-Cohn.
“I love looking at the issues quilts can raise,” Stessin-Cohn added. “I love that feeling of the old-fashioned quilting group. My husband has his poker game; I have my quilting bee. It’s fun, and this year’s service project brings attention to both the Freedom School and activism on behalf of the bees.”
The Akwesasne Freedom School’s annual dinner and quilt auction will be held on August 24 and 25. Food, entertainment, a Survival Race, vendors and a silent auction are scheduled for August 24, while the quilt auction will take place on August 25, starting at 12 noon or 1 pm. For more information, visit www.facebook.com/afsvendors2013.