The Ancestral Women project began several years ago when Mary Burns contacted the Wisconsin Historical Society concerning using images from their collections as inspiration for her weavings. She narrowed down her choices, eventually deciding on an image of a Ho-Chunk woman taken by H.H. Bennett, a well-known photographer in the Wisconsin Dells area. Bennett was one of the best landscape photographers of the 19th century, but also had a good relationship with the Ho-Chunk tribe of central and southern Wisconsin, taking portraits of tribal members and recording how the Ho-Chunk people lived.

Bennett took three photographs of the woman that Mary chose to weave. She is not named except to say she is “Pete Pettibone’s sister.” There is no date on the image, but it would likely be from the early 1900’s. Mary since discovered her real name – Emma Pettibone.

Mary purchased the one-time rights to that image and began to work on the image, as well as to do research on the Ho-Chunk people. She didn’t want to weave the image as a direct depiction of the photograph – she wanted the weaving to be “more.” She loved the textiles that the woman is wearing and holding, and discovered the shawl she is carrying was most likely done in silk appliqué. She loved its patterning and drew out the geometric design from the shawl, placing it vertically in the weaving design. So, the pattern of the shawl is emphasized in the weaving, drawing the eye to the textile within the textile.