Threading the Needle


Buddhist Rakusu

Closing the Osage-Buddhist Circle

We spent the last weeks—months—on a sewing project, creating a Rakusu: a garment worn when you become a practicing Buddhist.

The Rakusu has a rich tradition.

The garment is a rectangular cloth with straps that you wear over your neck, and you are responsible for sewing it yourself.

The cloth includes pieces of fabric you stitch together to resemble the topography of a rice field.

So: when you look at a Rakusu and see little rectangles pieced together, imagine a bird’s eye view of a rice field.

Legend says a prince asked his Buddhist mentor to wear a garment so the prince could recognize friend from foe at a distance.

The Rakusu signals to the visitor the wearer is a Buddhist.

Homemade Rakusu

In the Osage tradition, women sew open hands—palms open—onto their clothing.

The open-palm symbolizes that the wearer bears no weapons.

Traditional Osage blanket shawl from the Metropolitan Museum of Art

As I sewed my Rakusu, my mind turned to tradition, like sewing garments for my Osage tribal regalia.

Many Native women and men—including the Osage—wear cotton shirts inspired by the calico fabric brought by settlers as part of their formal regalia.

We call them “tear shirts,” which refers to the fact that women tore the material when scissors were forbidden by government agents who considered the scissors weapons.

When I made my daughters’ tear shirts, I ripped the fabric as I had learned.

My good friend Barbara says they are called “tear shirts” to refer to the Trails of Tears, when many of our ancestors were force-marched to Oklahoma.

Not tear but tear.

I thought about tear shirts while sewing my Rakusu, fretting what my Osage relatives would think as I was embarking on a Buddhist path.

The philosophies are surprisingly similar, and I am learning that being Wah-Zha-Zhe (Osage) fits well with Buddhism: they are complementary rather than contradictory traditions.

I no longer feel I am “giving up” my tribal customs to embrace Buddhism.

The traditions co-exist.

Sewing garments—whether you are Osage or Buddhist (or both)—stitch old ways with new ways.

We use machines to sew ribbon-work onto our regalia shirts and skirts, and my Buddhist friends use polyester interfacing to line the Rakusu.

My Indian relatives will make garments for family and friends: my mother wove my belt and I made a ribbon-shirt for my brother.

Over the last few weeks I constructed a home-made pattern to sew a fabric envelope for my husband’s Rakusu, and then made one for myself.

I selected cotton fabric that would feel familiar to both Buddhist and Osage wearer.

Then I reflected that six other souls are joining us on our path, each sewing her or his Rakusu, and getting ready for the July celebration.

So I sewed six more cotton-fabric envelopes, thinking: this is what my Osage mother would do for her clan.

Threading the needle seems an apt metaphor in this context for two reasons.

First, there’s the obvious reference to an important first-step in sewing—hooking that needle with thread–and second, the expression, “Threading the needle” means bringing harmony to a complex setting.



Dedicated to my pal and sister, Barbara

8 July 2018








About Cynthia Coleman Emery

Professor and researcher at Portland State University who studies science communication, particularly issues that impact American Indians. Dr. Coleman is an enrolled citizen of the Osage Nation.
This entry was posted in allmyrelations, american indian, Buddhist, family values, journalism, Lakota, native american, native press, Native Science, nativescience, press, sioux and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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