In spring 2021, Vera Longtoe Sheehan (Elnu Abenaki) met with the students of “Native Presence and Performance: Reclaiming the Indigenous Narrative,” a first-year seminar offered by Middlebury College. After the meeting, Longtoe Sheehan recommended the students interview and write about VAAA affiliated artists. This blog post is one of a series that were created for that project, respectfully submitted by a student who self-identifies as non-Native.
Due to the length of this narrative, it will be introduced in three parts over a period of three weeks. This is part one.
By Tate Sutter ’24.5
1 June 2021
Jim Taylor lives life honoring his Abenaki heritage. An accomplished artist, he creates beautiful Eastern Woodlands style quillwork: he made the wampum beads for the Elnu Abenaki tribe’s constitution stands. Participating in the Woodland Confederacy, a living history group, he reminds others that Abenaki people still live in N’Dakinna. A classically trained artist, Taylor designs insignias for organizations around Turtle Island. He represents and serves his fellow Elnu Abenaki as a council member. In her book Decolonizing Methodologies, Linda Tuhiwai Smith outlines twenty-five broad projects Indigenous people can perform to strengthen their cultures. Taylor, who goes by JT as well as Swift Fox, actively lives many of these projects. He supports his culture and people through artwork and representation.
When Taylor learned quillwork, he had no teacher; very few people remembered the process of stitching quills. According to Taylor, “I had no one to teach me, so [I learned by] looking at various pieces.” He spent time researching quillwork pieces in museums and exhibits to see traditional quill stitches.
From these stitches, he used trial and error to learn quillwork. Soon after learning, Jean Heinbuch published her book A Quillwork Companion which helped further expand his quillwork knowledge. As Tuhiwai Smith discusses, revitalizing strengthens and fosters many facets of Indigenous cultures that are threatened. Over the years of making quillwork, JT has revitalized and become an expert in Northeastern Woodlands quillwork.
JT uses quillwork on bags, neck knives, sheaths, Abenaki diadems, and many other objects. His designs incorporate numerous stitches and styles including line, plating, and zigzag, which he especially loves. They include significant symbols and colors like the Thunderbird, the double curves, and the four colors of man. He creates custom pieces. While JT finds inspiration from other quillwork pieces, he never replicates works. Each work possesses its own power; replicas do not hold the individual power of a previous work. His work can be seen in museums and in people’s homes. Painters such as Robert Griffing have used his work in their paintings as models of Eastern Woodlands quillwork. JT believes in pricing his quillwork reasonably, so that regular people, not just wealthy collectors, can enjoy it.