Culture and Art Shawl Collection

American Indian Women’s Heart Health Awareness
“Healing Through Culture and Art Shawl Collection”
Created by: Suzanne L. Cross, LMSW, PhD, LLC (Bneshiinh kweBirdwoman)
Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe of Michigan-Member & Elder
Associate Professor Emeritus and
National Child Welfare Workforce Institute Tribal Consultant
Although heart (cardiac) disease is the number one cause of death for all males and females in
the U.S., including American Indian/Alaska Natives; women often experiences symptoms of
heart disease differently than men and are frequently unaware of the differences. A number of
women still consider heart disease as only a man’s condition. Therefore, they are not concern
for themselves.
The Healing through Culture and Art Shawl Collection was created with a cultural approach to
increase awareness and emphasize cardiac health and care for women. The artist is hopeful the
collection will inform, support, and encourage mindfulness of self-care to increase heart health,
which will result in an improvement of overall health. As a survivor of a heart attack (cardiac
incident) and open heart surgery this artist created 13 shawls in recognition of the 13 moons
from the Creation Story. Each shawl has its own origin designed to encourage American Indian
women at all stages of life to recognize the value of changing life ways to prolong and save lives.
Why Shawls? The artist has been a shawl maker and a beadwork artist for most of her life. As
a traditional dancer, she learned early on the importance of making and owning a shawl. During
her adolescence an Elder once instructed the artist by stating, “Every young woman needs to
have her own shawl; you are not to borrow a shawl; you must have one of your own when
coming to ceremonies and cultural events.”
Shawls serve as symbols of womanhood and are of significance to many American Indian tribal
cultures. In the past shawls were used for warmth in the manner of wrapping children in the
shawl when carried; or over the head and shoulders of women to keep them warm as they
moved from one site to another. Now-a-day, traditional female dancers complete their regalia
by carry the shawl over one arm to allow the fringe of the shawls to sway with movement to
the rhythm of the drum. Fancy dancers include the shawl to simulate the movement of a
butterfly arising from a cocoon, and some jingle dress dancers include the shawl as part of their
healing regalia.
The artist believes in the importance of the shawl and continues to makes shawl for family,
friends, extended family members, and herself. She has given shawls as gifts of appreciation,
for ceremonies, celebrations, and because the shawl “looked like” it fit the personality of a
particular individual. She has also donated shawls for tribal events and conferences.
The Collection
The majority of the shawls in the collection are made of woolen fabric, two of cotton, and one
of satin fabric. Five of the shawls are red signifying the color of life blood that pumps through
the heart. However, additional colors are included in the collection to celebrate life and the
importance of tribal cultures, traditions, and nature. The majority of the shawls are adorned
with eagles and eagle feathers, strawberries, hearts, butterflies, a drum, and medical symbols,
with overall floral motifs. These symbols have special meanings for American Indian people.
Traditionally, American Indians hold eagles and their feathers in high regard for they represent
honesty, strength, wisdom, power, and freedom. The drum is viewed as the heartbeat of a
nation and is an important part of tribal ceremonies and celebrations. Strawberries
(Odeminan) are a sacred food and “Ode” in the Anishinabemowin language translates to heart,
for its shape and importance. The butterfly symbol is utilized by many American Indian tribal
cultures with several versions of transformation/rebirth teachings. Therefore the butterflies
are included to represent females as they move through a number of life’s stages. The variety
of colors and shapes of hearts are used throughout the collection to emphasize the purpose of
the ‘heart healthy awareness’ aspect of the collection. Lastly, the medical designs on the ‘Red
Dress Shawl’ symbolize the “Go Red for Women” American Heart Association campaign.
The purpose of the Healing through Culture and Art Shawl Collection is to first acknowledge the
contributions of those American Indian women who have “walked on”. Secondly, to provide
support for women survivors who are currently managing a number of cardiac diseases; and
third, encourage awareness of heart diseases, differentiate symptoms from those men
experience, approaches to prevention, and the importance of self-care for current and future
The artist created the “Healing through Culture and Art Shawl Collection”, during a healing
process after surgery. She remembered being taught to always approach traditional work with
positive thoughts. Therefore, she recalled positive events in her life as each shawl was created.
Also, she would like to share that during her experience with physical pain and at a time of
healing, beautiful and meaningful items were created in hopes of positively inspiring others. In
the past the artist would reflect on why the Creator allowed her to live after her experiences
with heart disease (heart attack/surgery). She indicated she no longer does this; for she has
come to the conclusion the Creator has more for her to do. Now, each time something positive
happens, she think to herself, “Ahh, this is why I am here!”