Susan Hudson’s Walk Through Two Worlds

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Each time Susan Hudson – a successful Diné, Navajo quilt artist – accepts an invitation to present a lecture or grant an interview, she begins a journey through two worlds. When she speaks and when she makes art, Susan does not sugar coat her story. 


Susan Hudson. Photograph by Teresa Duryea Wong.

 

In the “white” world, Susan talks about the painful past of her family and the struggles of her community today. Her words are blunt and honest, and her art reinforces those words. She narrates a past where her Indigenous ancestors were beaten, starved, raped, enslaved, and murdered, and she wants these stories known. She wants their pain to be acknowledged and understood, and most importantly, she wants to honor their spirit and their survival.

But when she is home in her other world on the Navajo Nation, where she has lived for the past 11 years, people want to forget the past. The elders in her community do not want to talk about what happened to them, or their ancestors, and they fear that Susan is dredging up evil spirits by bringing up the past. 


Susan Hudson. Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women since 1492. 2017. Made on Navajo Reservation, Sheep Springs, New Mexico. 37” L x 76.75” H. Collection of the International Quilt Museum, 2021.047.0001. 


Part of their motivation for forgetting the past is because they are mired in the difficulties of the present. Life today on the reservations in America is harsh. Susan explains there are systemic problems with poverty, alcoholism, drugs, pedophilia, and human trafficking. Indigenous communities have become handcuffed to land that was not their original home and land where it is difficult to make a living.

Despite the resistance in her own community, Susan stays on the path she believes her ancestors want her to follow. She will continue to verbalize their story, unfiltered, and illustrate the pain, the beauty, and the spirit of her culture through fabric and stitches. She wants to squash the myths that people hold about Indigenous history and ensure the sufferings of her mother and all her ancestors are documented for all to see. And remember.


Susan Hudson. The Beginning of the End. 2019Collection of the Heard Museum of American Indian Art.


The Beginning of the End

The very act of being an artist whose medium is grounded in sewing skills puts Susan at odds with the suffering of her mother and grandmothers at the hands of the women who taught them, or more accurately forced them, to sew. 

Beginning in 1879 and lasting until the 1950s, tens of thousands of Indigenous children across the U.S. and Canada were ripped from their homes and sent to boarding schools. Most of the schools were funded in part or entirely by the government and operated by religious organizations. Conditions were harsh inside these walls with a multitude of documented abuses and little to no support for the needs of the children other than food and shelter. Susan explains that the children who came out of these schools were not alumni, they are survivors. The ground where countless children died while housed at these schools are not graveyards, they are crime scenes.

Her own mother, Dorothy Woods, was forcefully taken from her home at the age of four and she remained in the boarding schools until she was 14. During this time, she was forced to sew, among other duties, and if she made a mistake while sewing, the overseer beat her hands with a stick. Years later, when Dorothy taught her own daughter how to sew, she taught her the only way she knew how -- by hitting her daughter’s hands. Needless to say, neither mother nor daughter liked to sew. Susan was only sewing out of necessity to alter donated clothing. 


Susan Hudson. The Beginning of the End. 2019Collection of the Heard Museum of American Indian Art.


“The Beginning of the End” is one of Susan’s many brilliant, pictorial quilts that eloquently tells the brutal boarding school story. In the middle panel, small children arrive in their colorful native dress. They are immediately told to never speak their language, their long hair is cut, their clothing is stripped, and in the ultimate insult to these children, their names are taken away and replaced by Western, Christian names. The bottom panel is labeled “The Six” and is dedicated to her mother, uncles, and immediate family members who attended boarding schools. The quilt is now part of the collection of the Heard Museum for American Indian Art in Phoenix and is part of a permanent exhibit depicting the horror and fallout of the boarding school system. 

 


The Beginning of the End, a permanent installation at the Heard Museum of American Indian Art, Phoenix. Photo by Teresa Duryea Wong.

 

At the opening reception of this exhibit, Susan invited her uncle and other family members to attend. As guests came to view her quilt, Susan asked her uncle to tell his story. She was shocked to hear his words. Her uncle told people how he actually did not mind being housed in the boarding school, because as he explained, at home he was cold and starving and at the boarding school he was given food and a warm bed to sleep in. However, Susan’s cousins also explained that he suffered repeated sexual abuse by the staff, and rather than spend his days learning, he was “farmed out” to work manual labor jobs outside the school (and his pay was garnished by the school).

By making “The Beginning of the End” and exhibiting it, she and her uncle have broken down their wall of silence and as a result, they’ve become closer. The experience has also caused Susan to think deeply about the complexity of a story, and how the scars and trauma of the boarding school experience impact each survivor differently.


Susan Hudson. Tears of our Children Tears for our Children. 2013. Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian. (The star is the back view.) 


Reclaiming Quilting

Susan’s mother, Dorothy, harbors deep trauma from growing up in boarding schools, and then intense discrimination in all of the years that followed. Dorothy wanted to shelter her children from their own culture, so she moved the family to East Los Angeles. She felt if her young children were too connected to their culture, they might suffer the same trauma she suffered from being raped and beaten during the decade she spend at the hands of racist overseers. Instead, Dorothy pushed her children to obtain the formal education that she never got. 

So, to end up as an artist who sews and quilts is an act of reclamation. Susan is taking back an art form that holds painful memories for her mother and grandmothers’ generations. Her reclamation is a way to honor her mother and all the mothers before her. 

As she works in her studio, Susan asks her ancestors to guide her. She talks to them. She prays in the morning. She blesses her hands and her sewing machine. And she lets her fabric guide her. Once a new art quilt is debuted, the piece usually sells quickly, and once they sell, Susan gives them a hug and sends them off. Her quilts are spread across the most prestigious museums in the United States, including the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian, the International Quilt Museum, the Autrey Museum of the American West, the Heard Museum, and others. 

 


Susan Hudson. Walk of My Ancestors Coming Home. 2016. Collection of the Autrey Museum of the American West. 


Make Your Ancestors Proud

Susan Hudson may walk in two worlds, but she has found her home and her mission – making her ancestors proud. Despite the 150 years of trauma and pain they suffered and continue to suffer, her people have survived. Her art honors their life, their hardship, and their stories.

She invites the quilters she meets today to do the same. She asks them, what did you do today to honor your ancestors? Even if you have no knowledge of your biological family tree, your ancestors are there. They are watching you and guiding you. As Susan reclaims the beauty of sewing and quilting, she takes comfort in the fact that each day, her art, and her voice, make her ancestors proud. 


Susan Hudson. African Star. Features African fabrics. Collection of Gloria Begay. 

 

You Can Help – Donate to the Navajo Quilt Project

Not every quilter has the skill or intention to make art quilts like Susan’s, but there are many people in her Indigenous Navajo community who want to sew and make quilts for enjoyment and practical use, especially the older women whom she calls her Shimansani (grandmothers). But it's not easy. The nearest quilt retail shop or hobby store is a three- or four-hour drive, one way, from their homes on the Navajo Nation. Even if they were able to make the trip, few have the funds to afford all the fabric, tools, and sewing machines needed to make quilts.

Kaari Meng, the owner and designer of French General, has stepped up to help the quilters on the Navajo Nation overcome these obstacles. She founded the Navajo Quilt Project by working with Susan and other women to facilitate donations of fabric, batting, tools, notions, and sewing machines. In addition, finished quilts are also needed for use in homes. A page on the French General website explains the program and where to ship donations. Please visit https://www.frenchgeneral.com/products/navajoquiltproject