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FGCU ‘Native American Festival’ celebrates patchwork

FORT MYERS — Florida Gulf Coast University commemorated Native American culture in November by highlighting the art and culture of the Seminole and Miccosukee Tribes.

The last event of the school’s second annual “Native American Festival” on Nov. 21 focused on patchwork.

Seminole Tribal member Jessica Osceola, Miccosukee Tribal member Khadijah Cypress and University of Miami art historian Dorothy Downs gave presentations about traditional and modern patchwork.

The program in Fort Myers was introduced by the Rev. Houston R. Cypress of the Miccosukee Tribe.

“Tonight we are talking about the textile artwork known as patchwork,” Rev. Cypress said. “It is a symbol of survival. Patchwork mirrors the resilient strategies of our people’s beautiful struggle.”

Some early patchwork designs refer to the natural world such as rain and fire, the familiar man on horse design was a response to President Andrew Jackson’s Indian Removal Act and today’s modern patchwork features many pop culture references.

“Patchwork is a precious gift that artists are giving to the world,” Rev. Cypress said. “Some talented men have created it, but women are the primary creators of patchwork. These women maintain strong ties to the community and the culture, which sustains them both.”

Khadijah Cypress explains how she made the traditional men’s longshirt with patchwork during the Florida Gulf Coast University “Native American Festival” on Nov. 21 in Fort Myers. (Photo Beverly Bidney)

Khadijah Cypress, who lives on the Miccosukee reservation, started making patchwork about four years ago.

“I’m the tallest girl on my reservation, so for selfish reasons I started making dresses for myself,” said Cypress, who is 5 feet 9 inches tall. “It takes about four hours to make a row of patchwork.”

Cypress was so enthused about sewing that, with help from her grandmother, she started a community center on the reservation to help others learn patchwork, beadwork, baskets and other crafts. Her cousins and sister help her run the center.

“My goal is to show the younger generation how to do the traditional arts,” Cypress said. “We start with rain patchwork since it is the easiest to make.”

She displayed a few pieces she made, including a traditional men’s long shirt and a skirt with a cape, and described them to the audience.

Jessica Osceola grew up hearing the whirr of the sewing machines at her grandmother’s camp before the family moved closer to Naples for school.

In time, she stopped sewing and lived a more mainstream lifestyle.

“I didn’t realize I was leaving behind something that was part of me,” she said. “I started sewing again after college and now I dress my son in patchwork. If I don’t, then he won’t grow up with that as part of his identity.”

Patchwork is a social activity and Osceola spends time sewing in the Juanita Osceola Center. She, her sisters and cousins compete for the flashiest outfits.

From left, Houston Cypress, Khadijah Cypress, Dorothy Downs, Jessica Osceola, Noemi McDonald and Tatiana Schuss pose with examples of patchwork on display at the Florida Gulf Coast University “Native America Festival.” (Photo Beverly Bidney)

“A lot of math goes into it and we sit and work it out together,” Osceola said. “My sister is a really good seamstress and we push each other. It’s fun.”

Osceola is careful not to give away too much about the process of making patchwork because she is cautious of cultural appropriation.

An FGCU art professor and sculptor, Osceola created a ceramic piece in protest of fashion designer Donna Karan’s 2012 patchwork collection.

She showed the piece, titled “Not Yours, Not Ours, Not For Sale” at Art Basel Miami Beach in 2013.

Karan’s artist statement for the collection, which included a patchwork skirt, claimed the concept and design was her idea alone.

Osceola disputed that and created a large ceramic sculpture of a pair of red patchwork embossed legs sticking out of a Donna Karan shopping bag.

Other stores, including Anthropologie, also copied Seminole patchwork. But when Osceola wrote to the company in protest, it gave credit for the design as being “inspired by” the Tribe. Karan has yet to respond.

Osceola created a group, Seminoles for Authenticity, which has contacted other retailers and designers.

She has also received letters from people who have found patchwork in thrift stores and don’t know what to do with it. She sometimes suggests they give it to the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki museum.

“Patchwork is an art form that travels but it is our identity,” Osceola said. “It is almost like identity theft and it is important to claim it back.”

Jessica Osceola displays and describes patchwork clothing she wore as a child living in the Naples community. (Photo Beverly Bidney)

Dorothy Downs showed “Patterns of Power,” a documentary film she made in 1990 about patchwork, which features members of the Seminole and Miccosukee Tribes.

Patchwork often carries with it the unique style of its creator, whether it is the stitching or use of ric rac or bias tape.

“I’m like a sponge now,” Osceola said. “I look up to those ladies [in the film]. I use a lot of ric rac because my grandma did. I’m like a ric rac queen.”

It is more modern to use bias tape instead of ric rac, which is what Cypress prefers.

“If ric rac isn’t perfectly straight, I don’t like it,” added Cypress.

Cypress teaches young kids to sew more traditional patchwork, but once they get comfortable they learn the more contemporary look.

She said it keeps the continuity of patchwork intact.

Fabric choice is an essential part of creating patchwork; it is common to see licensed fabrics featuring favorite teams, cartoon characters and other nods to the modern world. Osceola looks to the seasons when she chooses fabrics.

She also doesn’t let scraps of patchwork go to waste; she uses them on pillows, blankets and handbags.

No matter where patchwork is used and what the style, it is valued and ingrained in culture and identity.

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Beverly Bidney
Beverly Bidney has been a reporter and photographer for The Seminole Tribune since 2012. During her career, she has worked at various newspapers around the country including the Muskogee Phoenix in Oklahoma, Miami Herald, Associated Press, USA Today and other publications nationwide. A NAJA award winning journalist, she has covered just about everything over the years and is an advocate for a strong press. Contact her at beverlybidney@semtribe.com.
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