Sisters DeVon and Donna Bursheim, and cousin Shelly DuMarce, met recently in DeVon’s living room at Agency Village on the Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate, to quilt and talk, like sisters do.
Though their work is sought after in Northeast South Dakota, and recently received some national attention, the sisters first came to the art of making star quilts out of necessity borne by loss.
“Ten years ago, our father passed away, " DeVon recalled. "Some families will put on a memorial for their family member to remember them by, and they'll have a giveaway. Before Dad died he told us that he didn’t want a giveaway, because it’s a hardship on the family. Cause these giveaways are massive. I’ve heard of 100 star quilts being given away at a memorial. And they're spendy.”
“He told us he didn’t want a memorial, and we weren’t going to. Then our Aunt approached us one day and said, ‘I’m having a memorial with or without your help.’ So I talked with my sisters and I said, ‘The only reason Dad didn’t want to have a memorial was because he didn’t want to have a hardship on our family. Well, it won’t be a hardship if we made them.’”
“So we decided that we would make them. [A friend] that knows how to make star quilts came over one Saturday and layed it out for us. We started meeting once a week to sew. The closer it got to his memorial we were meeting almost every day.”
“So that’s how we got started.”
The sisters seem to have tapped into an innate knack for precision — cutting, sewing and aligning the diamonds of fabric to form a perfect star doesn’t look easy, but when the times demanded that, they learned fast, and haven’t slowed since.
The family operation, now five sisters and one cousin strong, continues to make quilts for memorials — and sometimes those come too soon. The work can be sad but also therapeutic. “For me, it's really a healing process,” says DeVon, “because we get together and tell stories, share memories. That’s what a memorial is all about is healing, and for us, that’s a big part of what we do.”
They also make quilts as gifts to honor people for achievements like time in service at a job, military service or service to the community, and they do a brisk trade in baby blankets.
Designs can run from traditional Dakota to Green Bay Packers.
You can see some of their work on display at the SWO tribal headquarters, where theirs comprise the autumn section of a four seasons quilt display that circle around the rafters above the lobby rotunda.
One of the sisters has a website, but word-of-mouth is enough to keep them busy. It didn’t hurt when one of their quilts was presented to President Obama on the occasion of his commencement address at Lake Area Technical Institute in Watertown.
“I think our dad would be proud of us,” says Donna.