LUMBERTON — What keeps Olivia Oxendine warm this holiday season is the very same thing that warms her heart.
It lounges clumsily over a chair, displaying the intricate panels of a pine-cone patchwork quilt that is the focal point of her living room.
“You just wouldn’t believe the number of times I’ve almost put it in a garage sale,” Oxendine said. “I can’t believe I would ever think to do that. Whoever bought it wouldn’t have known what they had.”
Oxendine, a member of the Lumbee tribe, didn’t know what she had. The pine-cone patchwork quilt, with four panels and 4,400 patches, was given to her by her grandmother, Bertha Brewington Bell, on her wedding day in 1968.
Oxendine estimates the quilt was made in 1915, making it 97 years old.
“A month before my husband and I were married, my grandmother told me she was going to give me this quilt,” Oxendine said. “But when you’re 21 years old, an old quilt means very little to you. She and a lady re-tacked the back of it because it was kind of rotting. About a week before our wedding, she presented it to me.
“She told me nothing about it except that it was given to her in 1921 as a wedding gift by her mother-in-law, my grandfather’s mother.”
The quilt is designed to resemble the bottom of a pine cone — characteristic of one first made by Henry Berry Lowry’s daughter, Polly Lowry, in the late 1800s. Henry Berry Lowry is considered a Lumbee “Robin Hood” — and is still revered by members of the tribe.
There is mystery about the origins of the Lumbee Indians, documented to have spoken English as early as the 18th century. Some historians believe they are the descendants of Sir Walter Raleigh’s lost colony of Roanoke Island. The little that is known about them makes the symbols of their past that more significant.
Polly’s quilt, crafted more than 100 years ago, now rests in a replica of a typical Lumbee cabin in the A.D. Gallery at The University of North Carolina at Pembroke. The small patches speak to painstaking detail — and to the start of a tradition.
According to Stan Knick, director of the Native American Resource Center at UNCP, the pattern can be found in Lumbee jewelry, regalia, paintings and other arts and crafts. No one knows exactly how the design came to be so ubiquitous in modern Lumbee culture, but Knick offers up some insight.
“Sometime in the 1980s a student of mine at the time of American Indian Studies took that design on the quilt and made it into a patch that would go on the front of a woman’s dress for traditional dancing,” Knick said. “That sort of got it started. He looked at the original and made something that was different but based on the same principle.”
While the pattern can be seen in many facets of the Lumbee culture, it got its start in the hands of women, who stitched it together in the fabric of their identity — an identity that, according to Lumbee author Adolph Dial in his book “The Only Land I Know,” means “to be cloaked in the myths and uncertainties of the past.”
Oxendine, who has been married 44 years, said that when she was first given the quilt, she “folded it up” with her other wedding gifts and put it in the trunk of her car.
“Then away we went on our journey of life,” she said.
Still uncertain why her grandmother gave it to her and told her little about it, she finds answers in the folds of its patches, and in its presence.
“It prompts everybody into memories of the past,” Oxendine said. “There’s something kind of magnetic about it that draws people together, that spawns conversations. It certainly is a strong reminder of my Native American culture, and it prods me to probe a bit more history.”
Pausing, she adds, “I have a love for history so the quilt kind of wraps me in that notion.”