“Every time I sew beads it’s tiring because it is slow work. But, every flower you make, you are happy it’s done. Each time you finish something you are so happy, as if it was the first piece you completed. I like it as art, but you have to sell them too, in order to purchase material to start all over again and keep going. I see lots of work today that I think is beautiful, different styles…so you see, the art of beadwork is not dying. It’s a going thing.”
Doris Ward of Ft. Yukon, quoted 1997 in
A Special Gift: The Kutchin Beadwork
Tradition, p. xiii
Sewing/beading is one of the most prevalent art forms made by Athabascans in the Alaskan Interior. Sewing and beading are used to make clothing, boots/moccasins, hats, decorations, tools, and religious adornments such as altar cloths. Today, other items are also made including beaded checkbook covers, cell phone holders, disposable lighter holders, Bible covers – really anything that someone might like to have can be made.
Historically, the materials used came directly from trapping and the hunt – caribou and moose hides, furs, porcupine quills – combined with beads traded with local tribes. Today, most of our beaders get some of their materials, especially the beads which are usually European-made, from stores in Fairbanks.
While some men do bead, most of our beaders and seamstresses are women who like to work out of their cabins, especially during the late winter/early spring months. Winter can seem to last forever in the Alaskan Interior. The Christmas/New Year’s season is always a busy period of feasting, joyous dancing, music and lights, but the months that follow can be long and tedious.
From mid-January through late April, spring is on the horizon. Soon, river ice break-up will come and with it, the sounds of migrating birds and newly-born wildlife will once again grace our environment, if only for a brief month or two. Our villages prepare themselves well; our Spring Carnivals are just a tease, reminding us that, though snow is still on the ground, the real spring, short as it will be, is just around the corner.
Until then, we wait, beading and sewing images of the brightly-colored wildflowers that will soon carpet the valleys which surround our villages, following a tradition that our people have followed for centuries.