Ramona Morrow remembers standing at her grandmother’s kitchen table at the age of 6 or 7 and admiring the tray of colorful beads displayed there. Morrow spent her childhood summers visiting her grandparents Elmer and Norma Corbine on the Lac Courte Oreilles Ojibwe Indian Reservation in Hayward, and those beads were her introduction to making Native crafts.
Many years later, around the time she turned 30, a request to make a Native doll for a neighbor led to an interest that has changed the course of her life.
That first doll was tea stained, had horse hair and featured lazy stitch down the two sides of the doll’s shirt. The project led Morrow to research Native American doll making, and she began to design her own collections. After she opened Morrow’s Native Art store in Hayward three years ago and gained some renown for her dolls, an article about her in News From Indian Country, the reservation-based semimonthly newspaper, caught the eye of someone at the Smithsonian Institution, and Morrow was asked to present a Native doll making workshop at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian, George Gustav Heye Center, in New York City this past spring.
The 48-year-old Morrow, a 2005 UW-Eau Claire American Indian studies graduate, said the Smithsonian workshop offered her an exciting opportunity.
The term ‘arts’ does not incorporate the full meaning of this part of Ojibwe culture. ‘Life’would be a better descriptor. — Richard St. Germaine
“I met people from all over the world and got to see their ideas,” Morrow said. “My session had about 25 people, and I taught them how to stuff, dress, bead and put hair on their dolls. I really enjoyed being able to talk about my work.”
Morrow, who is part Yankton Sioux and part Lac Courte Oreilles Ojibwe, has so far made nearly 200 Native dolls of various types. Her Cattail Collection features dolls, horses and buffalo made of dyed muslin and stuffed with cattail fluff. The pieces in her Anishinaabe Baby collection are life-size baby dolls that have a head carved from old growth white pine root, a painted face and real clothes. Her Cattail Babies are children’s dolls that are about 18 inches tall. She’s also begun a Yankton Collection in honor of her grandfather but has made just one such doll so far.
“All my dolls are hand sewn, stuffed with cattails, dressed, beaded and given accessories,” Morrow said. “They also come with a stand unless they are on a horse.”
Doll making is an important part of Native American culture, Morrow said.
“It teaches little girls to care for the young, like little boys are taught to make bows and arrows and learn to hunt,” she said.
Morrow said the creative process often begins with a dream or vision of what a doll should look like.
“When I first began making dolls, I had a dream that my doll was in a glass case with an eagle feather descending upon it,” she said. “To me it meant I was supposed to keep making my dolls.”
Morrow not only makes dolls but over the years has also taken up making jewelry, clothing, headdresses, cradleboards, weapons, wall hangings, lamps, clocks and frames, all of which are featured in her Hayward shop, along with her husband’s handmade walking sticks.
“I have a lot more ideas that are in the works,” she said. “With a store, it gives me a good outlet for my creative endeavors.”
Morrow has passed her talent down to her four children, who work in beadwork, photography, doll making, drawing and ceramics. She also shares her artistic abilities with the Hayward community by offering weekly craft and beading classes at her store during the summer.
UW-Eau Claire history professor Richard St. Germaine, an instructor, mentor and friend to Morrow, said it was clear to him that she was destined for a career working with Ojibwe tribal people either through service, leadership or governance, or the tribal arts.
“Ramona was a devoted student who had an enthusiasm toward American Indian studies,” St. Germaine said. “She also was very active in campus Native activities and events and encouraged younger Native students to get more involved in university functions. I eventually became aware of her interest in Ojibwe craft work.”
St. Germaine said Morrow is well-known throughout Wisconsin Indian circles and respected for her dedication to preserving tribal culture through her work in more than the arts.
“The term ‘arts’ does not incorporate the full meaning of this part of Ojibwe culture,” he said. “‘Life’ would be a better descriptor.”
Larry Martin, former director of the American Indian studies program at UW-Eau Claire, was Morrow’s academic adviser at the university, and he also taught her in his two-semester Ojibwe language course and hired her as a student assistant in the AIS office.
“At that time I came to know of Ramona’s interest and expertise as an artist and saw some of her work,” Martin said. “She was very interested in both traditional Ojibwe artistic media like beadwork and in very innovative ways of combining traditional techniques with very new expressions, particularly with a series of extremely distinctive dolls. Her dolls and other works have earned her considerable recognition in both Washington, D.C., and New York.”
Morrow has donated a Native doll to the last two U.S. presidents. “I received a thank-you from President Bush and a confirmation from President Obama,” she said.
Morrow has been selling dolls through the Department of the Interior’s Indian craft store since 2001, and she has a doll displayed at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian in New York. She also sells her dolls and other crafts at several shops in the Hayward area, at the Madeline Island Museum, at the Silver Feather store in Eau Claire and at numerous other locations.
As a result of the Smithsonian workshop, Morrow has received invitations to teach Native doll making at two area colleges: the LCO Community College in Hayward and Wisconsin Indianhead Technical College at its Cornucopia location.
Plans are under way for Morrow to present another workshop at the George Gustav Heye Center either this fall or next spring, this one focusing on bead embroidery. She also says she’d like to start a line of furniture.
“We’re setting up the garage to do woodworking,” she said. “I’d like to make tables, shelving and other pieces incorporating beadwork in the design.”
Morrow attributes her success to the individuals who enjoy and purchase her work.
“I couldn’t have gone as far as I have without the customers who have collected my pieces over the past 15 years,” she said. “My work is scattered throughout the United States, British Columbia, Russia, Austria, Finland and France thanks to them.”
Photos by Bill Hoepner