Yvonne Walker Keshick

Quill worker and 2014 National Heritage Fellow
Yvonne Walker Keshick

Photo by Michael G. Stewart

Music Credit:  "Ink Pata" (Lakota Lullaby) performed by Dennis Yerry.

"Chant" composed by ETHEL and  Jeff Peterson. Performed live at  the Billings Gazette's Studio by ETHEL and Robert Mirabal. 

Music Up

Yvonne Walker Keshick: I had an aunt working down in a park in Petoskey, Michigan, Pennsylvania Park. She did all kinds of beadwork.  Her name was Mary Degovra .  She asked me one day if I did quill work and I thought she said “quilt,” and I said, “Yeah, I make quilts.”  And she said, “I mean quill,” and she spelt it out, “Q-U-I-L-L.”  And I said, “No, I never heard of it.”  She said, “Well, you should try it.”  She said, “You’d be good at it.”

Music Up

Jo Reed: That's basket maker, porcupine quill worker and 2014 National Heritage Fellow  Yvonne Walker Keshick and this is Art Works, the weekly podcast produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. I'm Josephine Reed. Clearly, Yvonne Walker Keshick's Aunt Mary had an eye for hidden talent. Her niece creates birchbark masterpieces decorated with porcupine quills that realistically depict natural images and cultural symbols of the Odawa tribe.  Although Yvonne is descended from a long line of Odawa and Ojibwa quillworkers, she never saw the art form until she was twenty years old. But Yvonne quickly mastered traditional designs and then moved on to create even more complex and realistic patterns and shapes of flora and wildlife. Perhaps because she came so late herself to quill work, Yvonne is passionate about teaching and passing the tradition to the next generations. She's also learned the stories and traditions associated with quillwork and includes these in her classes when teaching the art form. I spoke with Yvonne the day she received her National Heritage Fellowship Award. We talked in the Lisner Auditorium and you can occasionally hear another 2014 fellow in the background, Cowboy Manuel Donley rehearsing for the Heritage concert. I asked Yvonne how long she waited before following Aunt Mary's advice to learn quill work.

Yvonne Walker Keshick: Not long after that, a few years later, Johnson and Kennedy’s War on Poverty Program came along, and one day they came, knocked on my door and said, “Have we got a job for you.” So they placed me into a job working at an Ottawa and Chippewa arts and crafts co-op where I would answer the phone and do general office work.  And there were workers there.  There was a basket maker, two quill workers, a woodcarver and a jack-of-all-trades.  And learning to work with them throughout the winter, got to know them better.  And then I became used to working with them and taking care of customers that came in. Really perspired <laughs> heavily through my first customer.  And when I made it and they said, “See?  It’s not so bad.” 

Jo Reed: Now how did you begin to do quill work?

Yvonne Walker Keshick:  I was in that store and one of the women working there was Susan Chaganaby and she was a quill worker.  She was there also teaching her nephew Dwayne Kugama , and I came up and I would watch them. So one day I said, “You know, I think I would like to try that,” and she said, “Good.”  She says, “I’ll teach you,” and that’s all she said. And then one day she come in and she says, “Today I’m gonna teach you quill work.”  I said, “Oh, good."  I went to the table where they were all working and sat down, and she says, “No, no, no.”  She said, “You’re gonna learn like I did.  You’re gonna learn from scratch.”  So she took me out in the back, opened up her trunk and there was a great big dead porcupine in there.  And it was so bad that they scooped it up on the shovel and put it in the trunk, shovel and all.

Jo Reed:  Road kill?

Yvonne Walker Keshick:  Yeah, it was a road kill.  And so she put it on the ground for me and she said, “Pull all the quills off,” and she showed me how to get started and--

Jo Reed:  Would you just--

Yvonne Walker Keshick:  We did it by hand.

Jo Reed:  Oh, really.

Yvonne Walker Keshick:  Yeah, pulled them out by hand.  And then she said, “Pull them all out and put them in a dishpan.”  So I pulled and pulled and pulled and then I went in and I said, “I think I’m done.”  And she come out and she looked at it and she would say, “Nope.  Some more.”  And that happened a few more times.  So finally I went in and I says, “I think I’m done,” and she comes out and she looks at it and she says, “Good.”  And she got a stick and started scraping in the driveway there, and we buried that porky right next to the shovel and just dumped it in the hole and covered it up right in the driveway. <laughs> We weren’t going to move it or carry it or do anything.  I learned that day what upwind and downwind is.


Jo Reed:  I bet you did. Can you just briefly explain what quill work is?  What are the materials that you use? I mean porcupine quills obviously, but what else?

Yvonne Walker Keshick: To make a quill box, we use the porcupine quills, which is the hair of the porcupine. All different lengths, half inch to maybe four inches long, and different diameters, too, and they come in different colors.  They could be white or white and brown or white with yellow tips or very, very dark or all brown, so they’re all like graduated colors.  Each porky is different, and I think that has to do with diet. So we use the birch bark from the white birch tree and sweet grass.  The sweet grass is a trim that goes around the boxes to help hold it as a binder and then the quills is a decorative part that we put on the quillboxes, and the boxes are sewn together, different sizes, different diameters.  And many of the old museum pieces we see have boxes that need repair because the boxes warp and change with changes in temperature and with age.  The older they are the darker the bark gets because they didn’t wash them. But since these boxes would warp and bend and change then my teacher, Susan, taught me how to cut all the pieces out of the same thickness of bark so that then there wouldn’t be the warping and changing going on further on as the box got older.

Jo Reed:  It would be symmetrical.

Yvonne Walker Keshick:  Yes.  And the original boxes were used for storing seeds, herbs, medicines, dried foods, dried meats, dried berries, whatever.  And since we didn’t have a written language whatever was inside the box the picture was put on top.  So the grandma might say, “Go dig in the cash pit and bring me some chokecherries and some dried meat,” and so the kid would go down there and look at the tops, find what he’s looking for and then bring it to the grandma.  And she’d take a handful out and throw it in the soup pot and then give it back to him, and that would go back down into the cash pit again.  The boxes are made tight so that bugs couldn’t crawl up and inside the box.

Jo Reed:  It would have to be really tight.

Yvonne Walker Keshick:  Yeah, yeah.  And they were put in the ground lined with birch bark sheets and wooden stakes to hold them to keep them upright, and then the floor was birch bark and it would be bent down at the bottom so that animals and critters couldn’t get in there.  And then the cash pit lid was pretty heavy, too, so that animals, if they did smell the food and want to get into it they would have a hard time lifting up the lid.

Jo Reed:  And did it keep food cool?

Yvonne Walker Keshick:  It kept it cool, kept it dry and then so they would have a cash pit at the winter camp and there would be one at the spring camp so when they migrated inland to get away from the winter winds from the lake when they got to where they were going, to the inland camp--winter camp, they called it--when they got there then they would just uncover cash pit thing and bring out the foods that they needed, and then they would spend the winter there and trap and fish inland away from the winds.  And then they would replenish before they left.  They would also dry foods and put it back in the ground again and then migrate back to the lakeside in the spring when the fish started running.  So both camps would have that, winter and spring camp would have that.  So the quillboxes were very important for food storage.  And they were usually stackable, enough so that you could see what you needed in there.

Jo Reed:  Tell me about your background and growing up. And which Native American nation are you a part of?

Yvonne Walker Keshick:  I’m an Odawa from we call it  place of the crooked tree, Emmet County, Michigan, but I was born in Charlevoix, which is neighboring Emmet.  Spent eight years in a catholic boarding school.

Jo Reed:  Are those the notorious boarding schools?

Yvonne Walker Keshick:  Yes, yeah.

Jo Reed:  What happened?  They just came and took you?

Yvonne Walker Keshick:  They took us, yeah.  My father was raising us.  He was court ordered to release us to the school, and so he did.  He didn’t want to but he did because he was raising us on his own.  So we were there, all of us, almost eight years.  And then when we got out of there I was so highly disciplined and monitored or had no say in what was going to happen to me that when I went to high school in ninth grade I was a fish out of water. Those were the four loneliest years of my life because I had no friends, and it was because I was so highly disciplined that I didn’t know how to socialize with kids my own age.  I was just totally out of it, and they thought I was stuck up, not realizing that I was also terribly shy.

Jo Reed:  Right, that happens a lot. You said you had been living with your father.  Did you go back with your father?

Yvonne Walker Keshick:  We did, during the summer.  We went to school-- boarding school from September until May, we were at home for 90 days, and then we would go back to school and went through that cycle.

Jo Reed:  And you weren't allowed to speak your native tongue.

Yvonne Walker Keshick:  No, no. We weren't allowed to speak at all.  They let us speak at holidays like Christmas and Easter.  We were allowed to speak at the table with each other.  There were 6 at a table and 200 kids in a room.  It averaged around 100 boys, 100 girls.  All the girls was in one dorm.  There were seniors, which was like fifth grade on up to eighth, and juniors were fourth grade on down.  So every senior had to take care of a junior.  At the age of 10 we were working in the bakeries baking 96 loaves of bread every other day and working in the kitchens and cleaning the school and all the chores that a household would have to do, so that’s where we learned that.  And then when we got out of the school then we stuck to the same discipline when we got home.

Jo Reed: Did your father have a more traditional Native American life?

Yvonne Walker Keshick: My father was the son of a Methodist circuit rider. He was very respectful of us girls while we were growing up.  There was four girls and one boy. I remember getting one spanking from him during my lifetime, and it had quite an impact on me because when we went to the boarding school they had capital punishment, so I got beat up a lot in school.

Jo Reed:  By the nuns?

Yvonne Walker Keshick: By the nuns, yeah, mainly because to look at them in the eye was defiance.  I didn’t actually look them in the eye.  I looked at the pin on top of their forehead in their habit.  You know, I would look at that, so to them it was defiance, and so they would always single me out because I was taller.  And I was a little bit of a leader and didn’t realize it.  Because I was taller the kids kind of gravitated towards protection. 

Jo Reed:  Where was your mother?

Yvonne Walker Keshick:  She left when I think I was about six, five or six years old.  We came home from school and she wasn’t around, so we decided, well, we’ll start cooking.  And it’s a good thing my dad came home.  We could’ve burnt the house down.  So, anyway, my dad came home and he found a note on his pillow and he read it and then he came out and he had it in his hand and he said, “Your mom’s not gonna live here anymore.”  So we said, “Okay.” <laughs> And then from then on he started taking care of us.

Jo Reed:  Would you see your mother?

Yvonne Walker Keshick:  I didn’t see her again until I was 17 or 18 years old when she came home.  My sister told her, “What are you here for?  You know, we don’t need you.  We needed you when we were four and five years old.”  She says, “Dad did a good job raising us and- and we don’t need you,” so my mother left again and went to Traverse City.  She did come back when she turned 65 and I took her in and helped her get settled in and helped her find an apartment. By then she became a Jehovah Witness, the church pretty much helped her get back on her feet.

Jo Reed:  Was through your mother’s family that there was this strong quill-working, or was it through your father?

Yvonne Walker Keshick:  On my father’s side.

Jo Reed:  It was your father’s side.

Yvonne Walker Keshick:  Yeah.

Jo Reed:  Aha, okay.

Yvonne Walker Keshick:  My father had some aunts who were quill workers, Aunt Odaman [ph?].  She was one of the finer quill workers up in Cross Village, which is where our family came out of. 

Jo Reed:  Well, let’s go back to that first box.  So you pulled all the quills out of the porcupine and Susan was satisfied.  And what happens then?

Yvonne Walker Keshick:  We put them in a dishpan and we washed them.  She used a detergent soap and would wash them, and they were rinsed two or three times.  And then spread out on newspapers to dry.  And then from there they would enter boxes and then they were kept in these boxes until we were ready to use them.  So when I’m ready to make a quillbox then I would go get all the washed quills and bring them out, and then I would sort different sizes, what I was going to use.  There’s probably three major sizes, so there would be the small size, which was used for design, the background quills, which is a little longer quill that was used for background around, say, the chokecherries, and then there was a heavier quill, which went around the edges of the quillbox, the sides.  And then the fourth size was a larger one, which went around the bottom.

Jo Reed: Pardon my ignorance, but it would seem that the quills would be very tough and not pliable.

Yvonne Walker Keshick:  When they’re dry they are.  If you bend a quill when it’s dry it develops a weak spot, and when you soak it in water to make it soft, which is what we do--

Jo Reed:  Is that what you do after you take the washed quills--

Yvonne Walker Keshick:  Yeah, after they’re dried and we sort out all the sizes we need warm water gets poured onto the quills and then they soak a little bit.  Within five minutes they’re ready to use.  So once it’s softened up in the warm water you can flatten them, bend them, twist them, braid them, tie knots in them, do pretty much what you want with it as long as the quill is wet.  As soon as it dries it becomes brittle and it keeps it shape. 

Jo Reed:  And you said, traditionally the quills are added as decoration to the box, but also as information that would reveal the contents of the box. What are some of the traditional designs?

Yvonne Walker Keshick:  It would be-- like a cross quill.  The chokecherry design berries might be on the top of the lid, and then to cover the seams where they come together at right angles, the round lid and the walls of the side, when they come together those quills are put in there in exes just to cover the corner seams to make it look nicer.  And then the binding goes on, the inside lining.  It all goes in and then it’s bound together with sweet grass.  And the sweet grass is sewn in around the box.  And then we make the bottom to fit the top.

Jo Reed:  Now, around the time you were learning how to make a quillbox were they still functional, or were they being used more as a decorative piece, or both?

Yvonne Walker Keshick:  The original ones were used for food storage.  When the Europeans came and saw them, they thought, “Well, this would be a nice box to give my wife to put her handkerchiefs in or her gloves,” so they started asking for functional boxes that would fit their needs, the European needs.  And so they started changing after that.  When I learned how to do quillboxes we were making pencil boxes and we were making boxes that were more for tourists or collector’s items.  When I was learning people were beginning to collect the boxes, and so they became collector’s items.  And I heard my boss call them instant antiques because you made the box and when it sold you didn’t know where it was going or anything, and we weren’t allowed to sign the boxes on the bottom because he was a middleman.  He didn’t want customers bypassing him and going directly to the artist.  So actually we didn’t start signing our boxes until probably 1980, 1982, something like that.

Jo Reed:  When you’re making a quillbox you have to think about the design that you’re going for first.  Do you sketch it out or you can visualize it and then translate that to the box?

Yvonne Walker Keshick: I sketch all of them out, and I do that to keep track of what I’ve done, and it’s given a number so that I know what I did with that and who it even got sold to.  There’s a code number that goes with it as to who bought it, so I try to keep track of all the pieces that I made.  And sometimes we do scan it or take photographs of it to keep track of what we’ve done. 

Jo Reed: How long does it take to make-- I mean, obviously it would depend on the size, but a medium size quill box, how long would that take?

Yvonne Walker Keshick:  A small one, like three-inch diameter and two inches high, we figure one a week. So that's when I work from 10 o'clock 'til 4:00 and then 7:00 at night 'til 11:00 that same night. So I put in a full day's time on it. And my son Arnold said since we enjoy doing quillwork so much, he said we shouldn't call it quillwork. We should call it quill art because it's not work. It was therapeutic for both of us.

Jo Reed:  Yes, your son is-- he's a known quill artist. You began creating your own designs.

Yvonne Walker Keshick:  I did. When I learned from Susan, she gave me stencils to trace around of squirrels, rabbits, stars, different things that I could make on a quill box top. And she allowed me to use her patterns. In fact, I traced them and had my own birch bark cutouts. And then when it's falling apart, and then we retrace it and make a new one. So she allowed me to use her patterns and designs and then since she was my teacher I was allowed to do any of the designs that she did. It was just teacher to student. She had me doing a lot of geometrics, a lot of floral, the sugar cookie designs and things like that. But I wasn't satisfied with that. I wanted something a little more-- I think dimensional was a word. She hadn't taught me how to do animals, she just didn't do those. She stayed with her mother's patterns and designs and didn't expand. What I did, one day I was sitting at home and got off of work and I was sitting there and thinking I've got to make a quill box. So I started digging out my tools and the quills and everything and I was sitting there and I said out loud what am I going to make. And this voice behind me says, "Why don’t you try an animal." And it was my teacher's voice. And she had long gone, so I made a bear, a charging bear, and made it and I was satisfied with it. So I finished it and took it to market and the buyer looked at it and set it down and walked away. And then I thought what's the matter with it. Doesn't he like it? So he said, "How much do you want?" I told him. And then he said no this is what we pay for that kind of a box, so he was pretty much controlling how much he was paying for different sized boxes. And in doing that then, he set the standard for what he wanted to see in boxes, he set the standard for sizes, dimensions, everything. When I found out later years was they actually kept my first bear. It's in their private collection. They didn't even go on the shelf.

Jo Reed: Give me another example of a design.

Yvonne Walker Keshick:  Well another box that I made was a spider web and that was my teacher's and her husband's creation. It's called a spider web quill box. It's an oval box with X's on it and then little quill diamonds on it. And to this day I haven't figured out which is the spider and which is the web. But that's what she named it was a spider web. So that was their contribution to the quillwork art form. And once I learned how to do it, she allowed me then to continue making those boxes and then my students, when I teach them, they also make the spider web quill box. But they also learn the history in that this family started that design and continue on with it.

Jo Reed:  Because designs belong to the families that create them. I don't mean exclusively but there's that sense of "this is where they come from."

Yvonne Walker Keshick:  They belong to the teacher and then whatever the teacher gives you, you can continue on with it. And in that way it shows the genealogy of a quill box. Somebody might look at my students' quillwork and say that almost looks like Suzy's. Well, sure because Suzy's student taught them so it shows the genealogy. And Susan did quill boxes like her mother, Marion. Kugama ,  so it shows the genealogy of a quill box.

Jo Reed: There are stories sometimes attached to quill boxes?

Yvonne Walker Keshick:  Yeah. When I teach a class-- I had a great aunt named Irene Walker, and she was one of those native women who did everything. She could do weaving, sewing, quilling, basket maker, storyteller. She was all of those things. And she was recorded telling the stories and so I read the stories and retell them then to my students, how the porcupine got his quills. And we tell that-- when I'm teaching the class, the students get that, that along with the quill lesson. And then when we're doing the white birch tree then we tell the story of how the birch tree got it's white bark. So there's different stories. The only thing we don't have is a story for sweet grass because sweet grass is a ceremonial grass. It's a spiritual gift, so there is no story that I know of that was made up to tell why we have sweet grass other than it's a gift from the creator. Same way with sage, tobacco, and cedar. There are no stories made up about how they came to be. It's just that it is a gift.

Jo Reed: When did you start teaching?

Yvonne Walker Keshick:  When I worked with Susan, my teacher, must have been in our fourth or fifth year she would say I'm the teacher. She said, "When I'm gone, you're the teacher." Because she used to tell customers when they walked in the store some outrageous stories sometimes, like red porcupines are hard to come by and green ones are worse. You can only get them in winter near Christmas or something like that. So she would tell them crazy stories and I would hear that and laugh, and when I heard Susan telling outrageous stories and I thought well we should have the truth along with the stories, so I began telling the the truth about quill boxes.

Jo Reed:  Well, you're very passionate, not just about quill boxes, but you're also very passionate about teaching.

Yvonne Walker Keshick:  Right. What I was learning from Susan was a very important thing. And the people would come in and look and say oh that looks so tedious, but it wasn't. It was relaxing to me and I enjoyed it. I began teaching the day she died and I didn't know she walked on. But the same day she walked on, two people came to my door and said will you teach us how to do quillwork. And I said I never taught before, I says, but I'll give it a try. And they said well how much do you charge? And I said $30 in food stamps apiece. So what the food stamps did was fed them. They were from Detroit and I was in Emmet County, so they stayed at my house and all the food stamps did was feed them while they were taking the class. And I had a full time job too so I worked with them at night from 7:00 'til 11:00 but during the day they had assignments to do. What I did was one of the first quill boxes Susan had me make was a star, a six-point star. And she said it was a traditional design because it stands for the four directions and the sky and the earth, which is six points. So she had me doing that and the plan for that star was to learn to place the quills side-by-side in an orderly fashion, straight, so that where you started from and ended on a point of the star it was straight. And then you went to the next diamond of the star and filled that in too. So when I do a class, they have to learn and use the same star that I do. So we have different stars, 15 different ways to do the same star, but the shadings were all different. The dimensions, you know, it changes. Some of the stars were dimensional, three-dimensional. It looked like it moved. Other stars didn’t. It was forcing them to become creative with their work and learning how to use a shading, learning how to place the quills side-by-side in an orderly manner. So that was the goal of their first quill box.

Jo Reed:  You became a full-time quill maker in the 19..

Yvonne Walker Keshick:  Nineteen eighties.

Jo Reed:  What precipitated that decision? I mean that's a very bold move.

Yvonne Walker Keshick:  Yeah, I was on-- living on welfare and I knew how to do the quillwork but I figured well if I want to make it and survive I'm just going to have to work a little harder, which is what I did. And I decided back then, you know, to become a full time quill worker and I made that statement verbally so that people would know that I'm really giving it a go at this. It was fun. In my good days, in my fastest days I was cranking out-- we call it cranking out-- one quill box every other day, something like that. Or even two quill boxes a week if we had to. But by then my children were small so I worked longer. Instead of working from 7:00 'til 11:00 as usual, I just upped it to 7:00 'til 3:00 in the morning and worked. And I figured with that I could pay my bills and raise the kids on my own and take care of them that way.

Jo Reed:  When you began doing quill art was there a danger of this not continuing on as a cultural practice because not that many people know about it? And now can you see that expanding?

Yvonne Walker Keshick:  The future of quillwork is expanding but the resources are being depleted because of the beetle that's killing the white birch tree. Michigan State has been working for years trying to figure out how to eradicate that beetle, but it is still tearing up our natural trees. And the sweet grass field where we pick our sweet grass is marked off for sale as a place where somebody could build a home and when that happens then they stop the water flow and then the sweet grass fields die off. And we did a few moves trying to buy that field, but haven't been able to do that because if we buy it and then protect it, then even our own people can't go in and pick it. So we're trying to figure out a way that we can do that. But what we are doing is transplanting, picking the sweet grass and transporting it and placing it on private properties of tribal members and that way we can spread the sweet grass so that it'll continue growing.

Jo Reed: Yvonne thank you so much for giving me your time, and congratulations once again.

Yvonne Walker Keshick: Thank you.

Music Up

Jo Reed: That was 2014 National Heritage Fellow, basket maker and quill worker, Yvonne Walker Keshick. You've been listening to Art Works produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. 

To find out how art works in communities across the country, keep checking the Art Works blog, or follow us @NEAARTS on Twitter.

For the National Endowment for the Arts, I'm Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening.

Quill worker and 2014 National Heritage Fellow brings a Native-American tradition into the 21st century.