Sewing Spaces / Needlework in Meek's Cutoff
Meek’s Cutoff (2010)—a movie written by Jon Raymond and directed by Kelly Reichardt—features a small band of disoriented white settlers traveling on foot through Northern Paiute lands in so-called Oregon. Loosely based on the ill-fated wagon train that fur trapper and trail guide Stephen Meek piloted in 1845, the movie follows Meek (Bruce Greenwood) on his half-baked shortcut off the main stem of the Oregon Trail as the company searches for water. Strung out in a line, three families lead three teams of oxen, two horses, and a mule across desert sagebrush and over crusted salt flats. Each time I see Meek’s and watch the single file of wagons pass through the screen the intimate scale feels like a homespun chapter of Westward Expansion.
The movie begins with a sewn title card that was inspired by an antique piece of embroidery the Thomas Williams family made to commemorate their passage west.1 Imagine four lines of text outlined with a thin stitch that reads, “A PIECE OF THE x OLD x TENT x OF x 1853 x.” Centered under the first line are two carte-de-visite studio portraits of Thomas and Hannah Williams tied onto the canvas with four threaded corners.2 This embroidered tent fragment at once preserves a personal, family history while testifying to an accomplishment that their tracks—left by footprints, wagons, abandoned campfires, and furniture—merely suggest.
Like footprints, stitching takes the form of broken lines. As agents of transition, broken or dashed lines mark movement and express change. They feel provisional, active. In design, dashed boxes are placeholders, wayfinding devices, and soft boundaries between graphic elements. As vehicles of the in-between, dashed lines measure distances, outline one thing behind another, and map uncharted territory and plans for new roads. When scholars Keith Clark and Lowell Tiller retraced the 1845 Meek Cutoff, they used a series of short, swift marks to distinguish the trail from the established water systems and roads that they represented with solid lines.3 By design, we perceive a sequence of broken lines as one thing following after another like stitches, wagons, and steps.
For Meek’s, the costume and title card designers exchanged the photographs in the Williams’s memento for the outline of a tree and transformed the single-cross and double-cross stitches that punctuate the source text into a halo of stars around the central image. Here, a decorative form of sewing, like embroidery, functions both as a piece of historical fiction in a cinematic interpretation of a historical event and performs as a kind of drawing of Meek’s meanderings, slips, and stumbles.
Beyond the designation of punctuated movement, sewing takes on another role in the film. After the group meets a stranger—played by Apsaalooke/Crow actor Rod Rondeaux and credited in the film as “the Indian”—Emily Tetherow (Michelle Williams) sews the ripped seam of his shoe in exchange for safe passage to water. “I want him to owe me something,” Tetherow explains. As she binds the fabric together and reconstructs his boot one stroke at a time, the unsolicited gesture becomes a form of chaining.
To push through the thick leather, Tetherow uses a heavy pin and thimble to protect her fingertips as she guides the stiff thread around the folds of the stranger’s shoe. Piercing the fabric, manipulating the thread, and knotting it in place—stitching with a needle and thread can involve violent steps. In this fantasy of the Oregon Trail, the repetitive action of sewing echoes in the fabric of the film. While embroidery signifies the collective trail in the title card, the movement of Tetherow’s needle initiates a bargain for mutual survival, strings attached.
Besides the handsewn costumes, the antique wagons, and the historical props, Meek’s suggests that history is a compendium of experiences and an incomplete weaving of individual voices. Whereas visible fragments of the past live on through the dominant culture, the gaps, spaces, and breaks speak to that which is lost and buried. Reichardt’s decision not to subtitle Rondeaux’s dialogue puts those who speak neither downriver Nez Perce or Crow squarely in the settlers’s shoes.4 From the stranger’s perspective, his captors are the unknown: “Is it a dream?...they’ve spoken to me. They’ve made me bleed...If this is a dream, what a dream.”5
1. Costume designer, Vicki Ferrell, and title card designer, Marlene McCarty, conceived of and designed the card. Email from Vicki Ferrell, Meek’s Cutoff costume designer, November 14, 2019.
2. Email from Tara Puyat, Collections Manager, Lane County History Museum, Eugene, OR, January 23, 2020.
3. Keith Clark and Lowell Tiller, Terrible Trail: The Meek Cutoff, 1845 (Caldwell, Idaho: Caxton Printers, Ltd., 1966).
4. Nina Shen Rastogi, “Meek’s Cutoff’s Mysterious Indian, Translated,” Slate, September 20, 2011, https://slate.com/culture/2011/09/meeks-cutoffs-mysterious-indian-translated.html.
5. Rastogi, “Meek’s Cutoff’s Mysterious Indian, Translated.”