2009 Changemaker: Audrey Thayer and the Native Women Together Sewing Project

"You just don't do a work of art in a frame of hateful feelings. When you touch the thread, material, there's a flowing of good feelings, and you pass that on."

Threads bind a community

“This may be the women’s only joy: getting together one to two nights a week, with kind hearts and laughter. Sadness and grief is a way of life [for Native American women],” Audrey Thayer said, recounting the purpose of the Native Women Together Sewing Project. “Many of our families, we don’t have a lot [of money]. We never know what’s going to happen tomorrow. This is a place of peace and serenity. Many poor people don’t have that serenity. … I wanted to help other Native women build community in a peaceful space.” While women on reservations have plenty of opportunities to connect, she said, “One thing poor Native women don’t have off-reservation is community.”

So she built one. Thayer founded the Native Women Together Sewing Project in 2005 with a handful of women. Then in 2007 Thayer got a $5,000 grant that helped buy used sewing machines, fabric and pay for rental space. The women make quilts and also dancing outfits for powwows (social events that honor Native culture). They teach each other what they know. Thayer estimates they have made around 50 quilts and many dance outfits.

Thayer is Anishinaabe and enrolled with the White Earth Band of Ojibwe. She is the coordinator of the Minnesota Racial Justice Project (Minnesota ACLU) and travels throughout northern Minnesota to work with Native Americans who have been mistreated by local law enforcement. In a number of Minnesota’s counties, there is a shocking disparity between the arrest rates of whites and Native Americans.

“When you get calls about child custody cases, police stops, being treated inappropriately by the police, police not answering rape calls in one county-those are the easy ones,” Thayer said; those are problems she can help with. It’s the grinding poverty and high death rates that are beyond Thayer’s reach. The average life expectancy of a Native American is just 55; Native teenagers commit suicide at 3.3 times higher rate than white teens. “In Indian country, attending two, three funerals a week is not uncommon,” Thayer said.

“We weave our lives into that material, our heart and soul in a positive spirit. You just don’t do a work of art in a frame of hateful feelings. When you touch the thread, material, there’s a flowing of good feelings, and you pass that on,” Thayer said.

The sewing project’s funding has run out, and the number of women who can participate is limited by the number of sewing machines. During the fall and winter months, the women meet once or twice weekly, and Thayer travels to participants’ homes. She brings along the five used sewing machines and fabric stored in the back of her car, “plus don’t forget the ironing board,” she said with a chuckle.

Thayer thinks that if there were more sewing machines and a permanent space so the women would always know where to go, more would attend. (She’d also like to get the equipment out of her car.)

Make Change The Native Women Together Sewing Project needs donations of fabric, money and good used sewing machines. Checks can be sent to: Native Women Together Sewing Project, c/o Audrey Thayer, P.O. Box 133, Bemidji, MN 56619. Donations are tax deductible. To donate fabric or a sewing machine, email Thayer at [email protected] or call her, 218-556-6239.