Luce Fellow Spotlight: Jessa Rae Growing Thunder

First Nations Development Institute (First Nations) is excited to partner with the Henry Luce Foundation (Luce) for a third year of the Luce Indigenous Knowledge Fellowship. In 2020, First Nations and Luce awarded the inaugural 10 $50,000 fellowships to advance and support the work of Indigenous knowledge holders and knowledge makers dedicated to creating positive community change. Beginning in 2021, we expanded the fellowship award to $75,000 over two years to support fellows committed to preserving and sharing Indigenous knowledge with future generations. In 2022, First Nations and Luce awarded 10 $75,000 fellowships.


When Jessa Rae Growing Thunder (Assiniboine and Sioux Tribes of the Fort Peck Indian Reservation) was 22 years old, she had a dream that would help guide her life. She saw a beautiful porcupine basking in the sun by a creek, showing off his glistening quills.

“He said he knew who I was, that I could do good work with his quills, and he was willing to give them to me ─ but I must do something in return,” says Growing Thunder, who, like her grandmother and mother, was gifted with an ability to learn beadwork and quillwork through dreams.

Growing Thunder specializes in quillwork, a rare Indigenous art form that uses dyed porcupine quills to embellish many items, such as clothing and decorative boxes.

Traditionally, certain Oceti Sakowin (Sioux) women are visited through dreams and instructed how to create art with designs, symbols, and techniques. These women were leaders in their society because they upheld these traditional knowledges, says Growing Thunder. “You had to know the stories, the songs, the intentions. You had to be selected to walk this way of life. And when you were given this gift to create quillwork, you had to uphold yourself to a high standard of living your life.”

Quillwork is a rare Indigenous art form that uses dyed porcupine quills to embellish many items, such as clothing, bags, decorative boxes, drums, and moccasins.

The porcupine dream inspired Growing Thunder to apply for First Nations’ Luce Indigenous Knowledge Fellowship. “I am a proud Dakota/Nakoda traditional beadworker and quillworker. My life’s work strives to guarantee the perseverance and survival of these traditional knowledges and the wealth of opportunity they provide.”

The educator and tribal arts historian has devoted herself to pursuing opportunities that lead to positive experiences for Native American communities. She is a former Miss Indian World, and in 2014, she traveled to Ecuador as a U.S. State Department liaison to work with the Quechua people on ancestral technologies and preservation. She holds a doctorate and master’s degree in Native American Studies from the University of California−Davis.

Growing Thunder and her husband (Navajo) have a 2.5-year-old daughter, Nuna Marie, who is “definitely 2!” and they live in Sandia Park, New Mexico. Just as the passion for quillwork was passed on to her by her grandmother and mother, the Luce fellow hopes to engage her own daughter in it, as well.

“My grandma Joyce really promoted it and I realize what an absolute blessing that is,” she says, emphasizing that quillwork is more than an Indigenous art form. “There are protocols and intentions associated with those knowledge systems and to know them is to know your natural environment, like where you get specific, natural dyes. We need to teach younger generations, like my daughter, who are drawn to quillwork to respect those knowledge systems and uplift them.”

The Luce fellow plans to make connections with other quillworkers and knowledge holders. To follow her “heart-work,” go to

Her ‘heart-work’ as a Luce fellow

Growing Thunder’s fellowship work involves promoting, preserving, and uplifting natural materials associated with traditional porcupine quillwork.

“Quillwork is truly an Indigenous art form because there were no colonial materials used to create quillwork. And the stories we have with quillwork go back to our stories of emergence into this world,” she says.

However, she explains that around the early reservation period, quillwork sharply declined due in part to Indian agents directly targeting women quillworkers. “These knowledges of the land, resources, and materials were so powerful that they were a threat.”

Quillwork eventually advanced to beadwork. “We progressed; we adapt. We are not static people,” says Growing Thunder.

In recent years, the interest in quillwork has emerged again, mostly attributed to social media, she believes. But something culturally significant has changed. “We are seeing the use of a lot of synthetic materials, which are not meant to last. People are quilling on plastics and using synthetic dyes. Not very many people know about natural dyes anymore.”

Gone is the rare, Indigenous knowledge about using natural resources like berries, moss, roots, animal hide, and sinew. But the Luce fellow plans to change that. After all, she owes something to that porcupine in her dream.

This doctor’s bag was embellished with quillwork by Growing Thunder’s mother, Juanita Growing Thunder.

“This will be the first contemporary, comprehensive, community-based project on natural materials used for quillwork completed by an Indigenous person.” Her Luce Fellowship will help pay travel expenses to learn and document oral histories and methodologies from other Oceti Sakowin quillworkers in Minnesota, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Montana. “It’s about stitching the information together and tightening the thread.”

As the pandemic wanes, she plans to conduct more in-person workshops within these communities to dye clothes and work on hides together.

Growing Thunder aims to produce an instructional booklet to distribute to tribal colleges and Oceti Sakowin communities with cultural arts programs.

“It is my hope to create a ripple effect in the promotion of traditional art forms,” she shares her vision.

While the project is underway, people who want to follow her “heart-work,” as she describes it, and connect with the traditional quillwork community can do so through her newly created website,

Gratitude to First Nations and the porcupine

Growing Thunder says the Luce fellowship gave her the time and resources she needed to make connections with other quillworkers and knowledge holders. “It means the world to me. It’s not just uplifting my family, but all our communities and future generations, as well.”

Growing Thunder says the Luce Fellowship has given her the time and resources she needs to grow her network of quillworkers.

She takes her position as a quillworker and knowledge keeper among the Oceti Sakowin people very seriously. “It is a way of life. We live it, we breathe it. It instructs our every single day.”

The Sioux Native tells a beautiful story of a Lakota elder she met when she was a teenager ─ an encounter that has always stuck with her. “Her name was Dorothy Brave Eagle and she was a quillworker. One of the last times I saw her, she held my hands and started crying. She was getting older and her hands couldn’t quill anymore and she was worried about what would happen to these knowledges, concerned that no one would pick up where she left off.”

Surely, Brave Eagle can rest in peace knowing that her legacy of quillwork lives on through a woman whose young hands she once held.

As for the debt that Growing Thunder owes to the porcupine in her dream, she now has clarity. “At first, I was instructed that I owed a physical gifting. But the stronger my relationship builds with quillwork, I recognize that it is a lifelong process of reciprocity, and I am constantly striving to repay the porcupine for the gifts he has given me.”

At the foundation of everything Growing Thunder does are the knowledges and gifts her grandmother and mother have passed on to her as a beadworker and quillworker. “No matter what every day brings … I end the day doing exactly what my grandmothers have done before me: After my daughter goes to sleep, I pick up my needle and thread.”