James Little Wounded: Combining Quillwork & Beadwork

Blending the Old World and the New, Native American artist James Little Wounded is well known for his ability to effortlessly combine quillwork and beadwork in his pieces. Here he tells how he learned these techniques as a young boy...and also entertains with a few wonderful stories from his childhood.

[Rose] This is a beautiful example here of a forehead (she's referring to his piece "Buffalo Looking" buffalo skull). I read your story where you said the top buffalo image is actually peaking over…

[James] Oh, yeah…he's peaking over like when you're going on a Vision Quest to sit on a hill and animals will come to see you. I read a story about that once…when a buffalo peaks over a hill at you…kinda made me think that's a sacred thing. You don't know what he's going to do when you see him…

[Rose] It's up to them, isn't it? They could either ignore you or take you on.

[James] Yeah, they're looking at you hard…are you going to be brave and show your whole self or run or is he giving you a warning?

[Rose] Its a beautiful combination of quillwork and beadwork together. Do you like doing that?

[James] Yes.

[Rose] Is one more preferable than the other?

[James] No. Its just what I feel in the piece. I like to combine both of them because of the Old World and the New…we used quillwork a long time ago and then beading came along.

[Rose] That's a really great analogy…the Old World and the New.

[James] My grandma did both…she beaded and quilled. She used sinew. But, my mom was the first one to teach me beading.

[Rose] As a way to keep you involved?

[James] No, to keep me out of the heat! I think when I was 14 or 15 I was getting ready to go outside and visit my friends and cousins and she came out of the house and said, "Get back in here, it's going to be 104 degrees today. You need to stay inside."

Back then I got heat stroke easily, so I went back in. "I got something you for to do," she said. She brought out some beads and a loom, you know a little square loom. "Why don't you make these for me?" she said. They had a YMCA emblem inside of an octagon (they looked like a stop sign). So, she gave me the pattern and said, "Could you make me 5 of these?"

"I don't know how to bead," I said. I watched grandma bead, she did Lazy Stitch, but this was a loom beading. "Its easier and simpler than that," she (mom) said. "You'll catch on, its easy." So she taught me how to pick the beads and follow the rows…and I was hooked!

Of course, I always wanted to learn to bead the way Grandma did, but that looked kinda hard…

I sat there all afternoon (beading on my loom) and after supper, I started up again. That day I finished one…it was kinda lopsided, but she told me I'll catch on and the longer I do it, the better it'll get.

So, I did 5 of them…I earned $15 (he says smiling).

[Rose] …and escaped the heat.

[James] Yeah. After that, I kept on wanting to bead more. I learned Lazy Stitch from Grandma and she told me how to do that.

[Rose] What about the quillwork?

[James] Oh yeah, when I wanted to do quillwork she (grandma) brought out her mother's quills. She opened her trunks and pulled out these envelops made of what looked like old newspapers (they looked like old parfleche) and had them all stacked in newspaper. When she opened them up, I could see all the colored quills. "These are my mom's quills," she said. "She quilled and had them for a long time."

Grandma asked me what I wanted to learn how to do. At that time, I wanted to learn how to wrap quill strips. So, she taught me that…it was pretty simple. I did a Medicine Wheel. She also showed me how to sew the quills with a needle and thread.

She said sinew is much harder to do because you have to use really tiny stitches…"It would be easier for a man to do it this way" (with a needle and thread) because a woman uses sinew better than a man could.

I was about to try sinew (he shakes his head and laughs)…

[Rose] You took her good advice.

[James] But, I did do Lazy Stitch with sinew one time. She (grandma) taught me how to use sinew with a needle and awl.

One time, I made a knife case. It was one of those hot days again, so I set up my 'ol wall tent outside, laid down a big 'ol canvas, made myself some tea, and got out an old wooden bench for a backrest. I got my radio out and put up all the flaps on the wall tent…it was nice shade, nice and cool. I marked out a knife case and made a knife case…in one day, I made a knife case!

(smiling, he adds)…of course, now I'm older, so it takes me a whole week!