Koyukuk River by Eleanor Yatlin
Alaska life

Dear Koyukuk River

I grew up on the Koyukuk River in Huslia and Bettles/Evansville. I have lots of memories of being in fish camp in the summer and taking rides in the fall. In November, Che Wilson (Māori) spoke at the Tribal Governance Symposium in Fairbanks. He described the river near his homelands and said, “I am the river, and the river is me.” Since then, I’ve been thinking about what the Koyukuk River means to me.

Dear Koyukuk River,

I float on top of you. I land on your sand bars and cut banks. Sometimes it’s easy, and I hop out and start walking. Sometimes it’s hard and I am immediately start climbing up the bank. Sometimes I carefully walk through drift wood to avoid tripping.

You are my Zen. My spirit goes to you when I need to getaway. I imagine driving along you on a warm summer day. A warm breeze offers relief from the heat and mosquitoes. I sometimes imagine relaxing on the sand bar or swimming in streams, and it is better than any tropical beach. I carry you in my heart, always.

For 1,000s of years, you have given and sustaining life to animals, plants and humans. You are a tributary of the mighty Yukon River and it feeds you, bringing fish from the sea. You, in turn, feed other rivers, streams and creeks. You turn into a superhighway in the summer.

My dad, uncles and brothers read and remember your channels to navigate. We fish, hunt and gather up and down. You connect us to your brothers from the north and sisters of the south.

You rise and fall with changing weather patterns. Huge ice chunks push up onto the shore during breakup.

Memories are eternal. Dad speeding around with his young kids. Or speeding up the sand bar so we could wash the boat. Mom pulling fish from the net and carefully washing fish before gutting them. Grandma dipping her T-shirt in the cold water and putting it on to get some relief from the hot sun. Watching sunrises and sunsets from the banks. Getting water to bring up the steep cut bank. Washing my hair. Driving little driftwood boats along the shore. Running my hands through the water. Swimming and spending time with my siblings and cousins. Checking the fish net and pulling out fish. Watching fish jump or a beaver tails flapping. Running down the bank when we hear a boat around the bend.

-Angela Gonzalez

P.S. I love you.

***
I could keep on going with memories and stories from the Koyukuk River. However, I thought I would ask my friends and relatives to share their love of the Koyukuk River through words and photos. They describe their love of the K-River a lot better than I can!

Nouyak Hamilton of Alatna/Fairbanks said, “I love the Koyukuk river, because it is home to my soul!!! There is no better feeling than being on the river, but when I’m home….it’s a completely different feeling. It makes my heart smile, and I feel it in my skin.”

The Koyukuk River by plane in winter. Photo by Doreen David
The Koyukuk River by plane in winter. Photo by Doreen David

Doreen David of Huslia said, “I love the Koyukuk River and the area around Huslia because I was blessed to have been born and raised here. Our parents instilled the love of the land and animals into us. Not only to respect our traditions, who we are, but to take care of and nurture the areas around us. That we shouldn’t be scared of nature, our land, the cold or dark, but should learn to live and survive in it. Dad and Mom traveled by boat and snow machines up river almost every summer and winter with me and my siblings while we were growing up. First by hand made boats and wrapped in animal skins in snow machine sleds. We traveled by snow machine in all directions around us, enjoying stories of dad traveling by dog teams to the areas we were at, and to this day I love traveling by snow machine. I love the knowledge that our parents passed on to us from their parents, and knowing that was passed on from generations to us. It’s like a book that me and Russell get to keep adding to and get to pass on to Jakob, JesCynthia, and Jordan. I am, and always have been, very proud to be a Koyukon Athabascan because our parents showed us where we come from, how strong we are, and how to survive. I really hope there is no roads into, or around Huslia, for a LONG, LONG, LONG time. I believe this will ruin the most important things we need to survive here.”

Linda Demientieff of Allakaket/Fairbanks said, “I love the river because I could see the bottom and look at the rocks. One of my favorite memory is lying face down on the ice and watching the fish swimming by.”

Ryan McCarty of Hughes/Fairbanks said, “My favorite thing about the Koyukuk River is the annual salmon run. If the water is low, you can see them swim by. My favorite memory is probably from the fish camp. My late older brothers made a bench on top of the bank. So, every night at sunset we can sit and watch it. My dad would say, ‘When the sun sets at a certain point we will move back to town.’ He used a tree across the river on the hill far away as the marking point.”

Koyukuk River near Hughes. Photo by Ryan McCarty
Koyukuk River near Hughes. Photo by Ryan McCarty

George Carlson Yaska, Jr. of Huslia/Fairbanks shared a memory. He said, “One of my favorite memories was eating the first chum salmon of the season at Grandma’s fish camp, which she had allowed us to use for a few years. I can still taste it after these so many decades later.”

Michelle Moses of Alatna said, “I love the Koyukuk River because we can still drink it. I love Grandma Kitty. She’s the one who showed me that said, ‘Yes, this river will not harm us just by drinking it.’ And without the ‘Ambler Road’, we will be able to continue drinking the Koyukuk River water.”

Russell Moses with Russ Jr. and Cece. Photo by Michelle Moses
Russell Moses with Russ Jr. and Cece. Photo by Michelle Moses

Til Beetus of Hughes/Fairbanks said, “My favorite memory on the Koyukuk River is of the love you feel among all the people. Also, because it is the best to float down to Hughes on a hot summer day. Finally, if you float long enough you end up in Huslia and they have the best dances!!”

Wanda Moses of Galena/Fairbanks said, “I love the Koyukuk River because it would sustain our needs every fall growing up we spent two weeks living off the river and if we were lucky we would hang and smoke our catch. We would eat fish, grouse, ducks, porcupine. I can just smell the fall high bush berries and see the wind dropping the leaves…”

April Williams of Koyukuk/Galena said, “I love the Koyukuk River because she provides for us and allows us to continue our traditional way of life, that we will continue to teach our children.”

John Williams teaching his son, JJ, to fish along the Koyukuk River. Photo by April Williams
John Williams teaching his son, JJ, to fish along the Koyukuk River. Photo by April Williams

Tina Albert of Tanana said, “I love the Koyukuk River. When I was prego with my oldest, I was up Alatna River picking blueberries and hunting up mom Kitty’s land in Southfork. Moose hunting down Old Man [slough], geese hunting back Chalatna [creek], beaver trapping, fish camp. Enjoying it. Across from fish camp traveling 100 miles round trip marten trapping back in the day. It reminds me of Tanana River. I grew up visiting Manley, Cosna, back Island Lake moose hunting, Cosjacket, Old Cillage, fall time, Harper’s Bend, fish lake,16-mile Yukon River fish camp. Hay Slough picking lowbush cranberry, and dipnetting for white fish. My dad trapped, also Bertha loved trapping marten and rabbits behind the house.”

Sheryl Meierotto of Evansville/Two Rivers said, “I love the Koyukuk River because it is home. One of my favorite memories is sitting with my late brother, Brett Stevens, on his bench watching the river flow by.”

A bench at the Koyukuk River at Evansville. Photo by Sheryl Meierotto
A bench at the Koyukuk River at Evansville. Photo by Sheryl Meierotto

Alisha Vent of Huslia said, “I love the Koyukuk River because it is one of the few places left untouched, we feel truly peaceful on it. I don’t know about my favorite but most memorable is going back to Huslia in fall time and it got too late and cold. Late Uncle Albert and a bunch of us stopped by a bank and started preparing grass? ‘We’ll sleep here for the night.’ I was young and thought he was joking. Woke in morning from our sleeping bags in the grass field with frost all over. My only experience siwashing out.”

Shirley Lee of Evansville/Fairbanks said, “I love the serenity of our little river. I have fond memories of swimming in it, boating to Oscar Slough to visit the beavers and picnic, ice fishing with Mom and Aunt Dora (Tobuk), watching the ice go out in the spring…”

Sharon McConnell of Evansville/Fairbanks said, “My favorite memory of the Koyukuk River is laying on the bough of our boat as a youngster gazing for hours at the clear river water and listening to the birds chirping and bees buzzing overhead. I have a large rock collection too from the many walks I took along the river bank. Truly heaven on earth.”

Justine Attla of Huslia/Anchorage, said “I love our Koyukuk River because it’s where I was born and raised. It’s HOME and it’s ours. Late aunty Angeline said it was so. My fave memory is in ole fish camp across from mouth of Huslia, with great grampa Olin and 3-4 families. There used to be lots of little blue birds, little red birds. Story: each spring, our elders used go out to the river bank, pray about the river, for good fishing, for safety. There was tea made, little lunch, poeples visiting, how exciting, then nights, there was volleyball right on top of bank, extra exciting, mostly adults played. But us kids watch and didn’t mind, because it was so, so exciting. Everyone hollering, laughing, etc. We played marbles and hopscotch off the side…nightly gathering…no TV, phone or internet, so our poeples used to really be able to visit…TELL STORIES to each other, another fave past time…”

Dorothy Williams of Huslia shared a picture of her driving a boat. Her dad is behind her in the photo. She said, “It was fun! This was a few summers ago, my mom, grandma, my dad and Brandon were floating really far down river looking for my late grandpa Alvin.”

Dorothy Williams and her dad, Joey Williams driving along the Koyukuk River. Photo courtesy of Dorothy Williams.
Dorothy Williams and her dad, Joey Williams driving along the Koyukuk River. Photo courtesy of Dorothy Williams.

Pearl Henry of Huslia/Fairbanks said, “I love the Koyukuk River because it is our water of which is our Livelihood for Ts’aateyhdenaake Kk’oonh Denh (Huslia) and all who are connected to it. All of our grandparents and great-grandparents told stories of the many traditions. This amazing river kept our elders alive: Great-grandpa Chief Henry, Great-grandma Bessie Henry, Grandpa Mathew, Grandma Daisy, Grandma Alda, Grandpa Sidney, Grandma Angeline, Grandpa Richard, Grandma Eliza, Grandma Big Sophie, Grandma Anne, Grandma Sophie, Grandpa Billy, Grandma Emily, Grandpa Tony, Grandma Rose, Grandma Catherine, Grandpa Steven, Grandma Madeline, Grandpa Cue, Grandma Edith, Grandpa Johnson, Grandma Bertha, Grandpa Lloyd, Grandma Amelia, Mom (Darlene), Dad (Thomas), Aunt Selina, Uncle Hudson and many more. With all the love and knowledge that flowed through these Elders and our Aunts and Uncles that were and are here today… We have a few Elders that are still with us and we really need to visit them, keep them cared for as we do so very well and soak up all the knowledge that we can. The water and land surrounding the Koyukuk River flows through our veins and is embedded in our hearts. We love and cherish this incredible river and all beautiful people for the good memories. No one is perfect, we are all equals, and we have to stick together to do good and be good to our children, so they will continue to thrive. Living healthy and respecting one another is valuable. May the Great Spirit of this beautiful Koyukuk River and the nature of Alaska flow through us all forever=).”

Rose Albert's painting is inspired by interior Alaska. Find her at Nowitna River Studios. Courtesy of Rose Albert
Rose Albert’s painting is inspired by interior Alaska. Find her at Nowitna River Studios. Courtesy of Rose Albert

Solo Yatlin of Huslia/North Pole said he loved going to Ring Beach near Bettles/Evansville. He also said, “Loved grayling fishing at Wild River.”

My mom, Eleanor Yatlin of Huslia, said “Staying in our camp here in Huslee and staying in that cool camp below Bettles, traveling on the River between Bettles and here by boat and sno-go.”

Darlene Bifelt of Huslia/Fairbanks said, “I remember spending summers in fish camp. Dad would leave to work on the barge as a River Boat Captain for the summer. Mom took the family including all of our sled dogs to camp to go fishing. Our family worked together every day checking the fish net twice a day. Even though it was hard work we made it fun. While the older siblings checked the net breakfast and later lunch was prepared. When the tubs of fish were brought to camp, we guessed how many fish there was, this made it fun & interesting! Our youngest sister was about two or three years old and her job was to hang the fish backbones. One day when we were winding down she asked, ‘Where’s all the back bone around here?’ Every now and then we’d see a black bear across the river and we felt safe because our dogs were tied up on the beach. We had one or two tied in the woods behind our tents. Even after working all day taking care of fish, in the evening we would use sticks, fish line and hooks to catch white fish. It was fun to scale and learn how to cut them. Mom and my oldest sister, Char, would cut the good eating fish and everyone else worked on fish for the dogs. It was super easy to care for the dogs too because they were on the beach. It was quick to cook up fish for them with the water and fish being in close proximity. Same for giving them water every day. It was a treat to get visitors in the evening from a neighboring camp. What a great memory, I wish my kids and now grandchildren could experience that peaceful, hardworking way of life.

Johnnie Yatlin of Huslia/North Pole said, “One time we were going down to south fork from Bettles. The kicker stopped, so Harvey was working on the motor. Anyways it was late fall so the water was kind of high and I was paddling so we would stay away from the sweepers on the bank. I was unable to get away from one. I grabbed it. It almost pushed me into the river. I let go of it and it hit a cage we had it was full of chickens. Harvey dodged the sweeper. The chickens were sinking. Harvey was like, ‘Oh my chickens nooo.’ I looked at him and said, ‘F* your stupid chickens,’ and I almost got thrown in the river. Hahahahaha he just laughed and so did I.”

Rose Albert's painting is inspired by interior Alaska. Find her at Nowitna River Studios. Courtesy of Rose Albert
Rose Albert’s painting is inspired by interior Alaska. Find her at Nowitna River Studios. Courtesy of Rose Albert. Photo by Jeff Schultz
Family gathered for a swim on Lydz' beach down river from Huslia. Photo by Angela Gonzalez
Family gathered for a swim on Lydz’ beach down river from Huslia. Photo by Angela Gonzalez

My niece, Lydia Yatlin of Huslia/Fairbanks, said, “My favorite memories are when I was about 8 or 10 and we were on Lydz’ beach and it started raining. Grandpa said, ‘Come Lydz, get on my lap’. He covered me and he and we saw lightening it was cool. Here’s another one. I was about 6 and we were on Lydz’ beach again and Vanessa’s kids were there and Jojo’s kids were there and your kids were there. All the kids were swimming in the little tide pools. We all had fun.”

Tanya Yatlin of Huslia/Fairbanks said, “Sitting at the riverbank in camp in the evening while it’s quiet and calm. Little breeze blowing by, birds chirping here and there. How the weather can change in a second. Once mom and dad, Mae, Lydz and I were all in Lydz’ Beach checking the fishnet and relaxing. One minute it was sunny and warm and the next second, it was pouring rain. Dad and Lydz were sitting on a camp chair converted with a life jacket, mom was sitting in another chair with her extra shirt over her. Mae and I had to stand there for a few minutes getting soaked. Our fronts were soaked but our backs were still dry. It lasted only a few minutes and we didn’t have time to run for cover. Growing up swimming down the bend from camp…before it caved and broke through. We would swim a lot while keeping cool. We would tip the boat and splash it with the water to clean the fish slime off.”

Esther McCarty of Ruby said, “I love the Koyukuk River because that is where I was born and raised. That is where the white fish taste sweet and the moose meat taste sweet from the fresh river water that runs over the gravel bars. It you stay up early in the mornings, you can see the sun come up and hit the tops of the hills. You can see the beautiful sunsets in the evenings. You can feel how peaceful it is and be content just by sitting on the river bank watching the river flow by. The sense of peace is overwhelming and the silence. That is where I get regrounded when I’ve been away for too long. The Native language that I speak with family and friends is food for the soul, the traditional memorial potlatches are very much a big part of healing when you have loved ones who have passed. I can go on and on, but the Koyukuk River is where I can do just about anything from renewed energy and spirit.”

Hazel Beatus of Fairbanks said, “My favorite memory was when late Uncle plowed the river side of the field. I went for a walk, about where the path to the bar, there were flowers. By the time I got to town, I could barely stretch my arms and only picking one of each variety and they were big! Our table was covered, Mom was little surprised.”

Enaa baasee’ to everyone who shared their memories and stories! It is a blessing to grow up on the Koyukuk River and on the land. It can be blissful and unforgiving, but it sustains so much life. You can learn so much about life and survival, and be connected to ancestors at the same time.

Sonia Vent sewed a fur ruff onto her granddaughter's parka. Courtesy photo
Alaska Native culture

Learning Fur and Skin Sewing

Sonia Vent sewed a fur ruff onto her granddaughter's parka. Courtesy photo
Sonia Vent sewed a fur ruff onto her granddaughter’s parka. Courtesy photo

My friend and relative, Sonia Vent, shared about her experience of sewing a ruff made out of rabbit and marten fur. The ruff is for her granddaughter’s parka. A ruff keeps people’s face warm when they have it on a hood. Sonia is Koyukon Athabascan and is from Huslia. Her parents are Freddie and Lorna Vent of Huslia.

Sonia’s experience of sewing a ruff reminded me of my journey for beading and sewing slippers/moccasins for the past year. Taking up a cultural practice can be a spiritual experience. That little knowledge we have is powerful enough to connect us to our culture. I have found beading and sewing to be healing. Learning and practicing our culture is important. She graciously agreed to share her experience. Here it is below.

In honor of all the skin sewers now and those who have gone on
By Sonia Vent (Koyukon Athabascan)

“I made a little rabbit marten skin ruff for my granddaughters’ parka. While in Fairbanks I rummaged through my mom’s furs, skins, and patterns helping her to both find and organize things.  I had planned to make a ruff for my GD’s parka before then. My mom had some already cut strips of rabbit fur amongst her things which she offered for me to use. She also had a piece of marten skin that was part of something else that she said that I could have. Ana basee’ ena’aa (thank you so much, dear mom)!

What I discovered in skin sewing is that it takes a lot talent and expertise to turn out a well finished product. The fur has to be cut in a certain way so that one does not cut into the fur and the cut is only through the skin. My mom showed me a special way that she holds the fur as she cuts through the skin. Despite her now shaking hands she managed to do it like a professional. Measurement must be adhered to in order for the pieces to come together and for it to match up with the garment that it will go on. The sewing through the furred skin takes skill and talent otherwise the fur can be pulled through the skin along with the sinew or thread. It is important to find the “sweet spot” to sew through so that the seams are even and clean. I’ve also discovered the best light to sew in is daylight. Daylight is naturally bright and clear. I love the daylight!

As I worked on the ruff, I thought of my many relatives and ancestors who worked night after night to make new garments for their families to wear at for the different community gatherings and holiday events. Skin sewing with our people was done out of necessity and love, especially love. I envisioned mothers sitting by a low-lit lamp working into the wee hours of the morning to finish a product for a special event so their children would have perfectly sewn clothing for the Christmas Program, that husband may have a nice wolf ruff to wear to the Winter Memorial Potlatch or that young son or daughter may have new kakkanaa’ (fur boots) to wear during the snow shoe race.

I especially thought of late great aunt Eliza Attla. I thought of all of the beautiful garments that she had made over the years up to the end. I thought of how her loss of hearing seemed to have made her especially talented at sewing. I realized how and why as I found myself lost in my creativity. It’s almost as though creativity deafens one to all external noise. Skin sewing is a skill, if mastered, can turn out a finely finished product. A sign of love.”

Sonia Vent sewed a ruff using rabbit and marten fur. Courtesy photo
Sonia Vent sewed a ruff using rabbit and marten fur. Courtesy photo

I asked Sonia if she has any advice for people who are considering trying to do skin sewing. She recommends finding an experienced mentor to learn from. I can see how that would be important. Her mom, Lorna Vent, is a master skin sewer and beader. I remember learning how to bead barrettes and kkaakene (fur boots) from her at Johnson O’Malley classes at the school in Huslia. Sonia recommends gathering up the supplies needed for your project. She says, “Consider what furs will be used for project. Some furs are not recommended for certain gender.” That’s where an experienced mentor can guide you.

Sonia recommends being aware of your posture and repetitive motions. She says, “Holding a position too long it can create a real problem in certain body parts. Practice timed breaks and movement will prevent body ailments.” I know when I’m beading and sewing, I stay aware of ergonomics. Sometimes, my shoulders and wrist hurt after a long session.

Enaa baasee’ to Sonia for sharing her experience!

Alaska Native culture

Beading and Sewing Stations

It’s no secret I love beading. I love beading slippers/moccasins the most. Since last November, I beaded over 52 pairs on my free time on the evenings and weekends. It’s fun, therapeutic, healing, challenging and relaxing. I asked friends on Facebook recently to share photos in a “photo comment hello”, and some shared their beading and sewing projects and work stations. I love seeing people’s projects and how they set up their work area! I’ll share a few. Enaa baasee’ for friends and relatives for sharing!

Here’s what I’m working on today. I’m beading a pair of slippers for a friend’s daughter who is celebrating her 8th birthday.

This is my cousin, Wanda Moses of Fairbanks & Galena, and she makes summer parkas, aka bets’eh hoolaanee or kuspuks. I love seeing her latest designs. Photo courtesy of Wanda Moses.

My aunt, Gladys Derendoff of Huslia, enjoys beading. I love her creativity and her beadwork reminds me of my late Grandma Lydia Simon’s work. Photo by Gladys Derendoff.

My mother, Eleanor Yatlin of Huslia, is finishing up this beautiful quilt for my daughter. I love seeing her latest blankets. She has an eye for colors and matching fabric. Photo by Eleanor Yatlin.

My aunt, Dorothy Yatlin of Huslia, shared her workspace and her latest beading projects. I love seeing other people’s color choices! Photo by Dorothy Yatlin.

My aunt Dorothy Yatlin also makes fur hats. I love this purple color. They are the perfect hat for cold winters in interior Alaska. Photo by Dorothy Yatlin.

My cousin, Thelma Nicholai of Hughes, shared her beadwork. I love how she’s using white to outline her work. I will have to try white some time. Photo by Thelma Nicholai.

Janet Antone is hosting the @indigenousbeads Twitter account this week. She is Iroquois from Oneida Nation in Canada. She was catching up on American Horror Story and beading. Photo courtesy of Ms. Antone’s Beadwork.

Thank you everyone for sharing!

It took Brenda Mahan nearly two years to complete this Athabascan firebag. It is 9.5” x 10” with a 60” wool yarn strap which hangs approximately 30”. Brenda says, “It is beaded on both sides and lined with cotton fabric. I utilized size 11 Japanese seed beads and it is edged with size 6 Japanese seed beads. I utilized black wool broadcloth to create the piece. On each side, there is a main flower in the center. These flowers are old patterns that I attempted to re-create. Although the overall design is my original, I referenced Northern Athabascan Art, A Beadwork Tradition by Kate C. Duncan to design my piece and to determine what was used to create a firebag.” Courtesy photo
Alaska Native/Indigenous People

Brenda Mahan – Athabascan Beader

Athabascan Artist Brenda Mahan with her latest pieces of beadwork include a firebag, wall hanging and moose hide octopus bag. Photo by Angela Gonzalez
Athabascan Artist Brenda Mahan with her latest pieces of beadwork include a firebag, wall hanging and moose hide octopus bag. Photo by Angela Gonzalez

I have been admiring beadwork by Brenda Mahan for the past few years. She is Koyukon Athabascan with roots from Galena, Alaska and now lives in Nevada. Brenda was raised in Cordova, Alaska and is a shareholder of Chugach Alaska Corporation. Although she has a day job as a child support supervisor, she spends her free time beading. I consider her a master artist in beading.

Brenda’s adoptive parents are Pete and Marlene Laplante. Her birth grandparents were Johnson and Lilly Henry from Galena, Alaska. Brenda’s birth mother is Madeline Henry. Madeline is a beader, and collaborated with her late mother, Lilly Henry, to make several large coasters for the Governor’s Awards in Alaska in the 1982. Madeline and late Lilly also have a piece featured in Kate C. Duncan’s book, Some Warmer Tone Alaska Athabascan Bead Embroidery.

Brenda says, “Being adopted, I learned bead embroidery from books.” One such book was, Ann’s Creations: Designs & Instructions for Making Your Own Athabascan Beadwork by Ann Goessel, where she learned some of the basics to beading. In 2001, she ventured to make her first beaded barrette. In 2004, Brenda took a beading class taught by Athabascan bead artist, Delores Sloan, held at the Alaska Native Heritage Center. In 2009, Brenda decided to create floral beadwork with moose hide with a goal to sell it at Alaska Native Medical Center’s Gift Shop in Anchorage, Alaska. The ANMC Gift Shop is known for selling high quality traditional Alaska Native arts and crafts. Brenda said, “This was an honor for me to have my items accepted in this gift shop as it meant that my beadwork had met a high standard.”

Angela Gonzalez and Brenda Mahan meet in Anchorage
Angela Gonzalez and Brenda Mahan meet in Anchorage

Brenda was always drawn to beadwork and sewing and especially loves floral beadwork. She finds inspiration from nature. She grew up enjoying the wonders of Alaska, like beach combing, berry picking, hiking, skiing, snow machining, trapping, hunting and fishing. Brenda’s preferred materials include size 11 Japanese seed beads, nymo thread, porcupine quills, moose hide, dentallium shells and Ultra suede. Brenda uses the two-needle method which she believes makes her lines straighter and more controlled curves. This method came naturally to her, but designing has been more of a challenge.

“I love to work with the soft moose hide and the smell of smoked hide conjures up many feelings of happiness for me. There are not many people who bead on moose hide anymore due to the rising cost.” Brenda Mahan, Koyukon Athabascan

Beadwork brings Brenda closer to her Athabascan and Alaska Native people. She often shares her beadwork on a Facebook group, called Athabascan Showcase. Brenda enjoys connecting with people, and has even discovered some are distant relatives.

Brenda was honored to receive with several pages of floral patterns and a zipper pull mukluk pattern (signature piece) from Madeline. Brenda wishes she lived closer to Madeline so they could bead together. Brenda only met her late grandmother, Lilly Henry, once and treasures looking at pictures of her beadwork. Brenda adds an edge technique to some of her beadwork in honor of Lilly’s style of beadwork.

Brenda Mahan has spent over 100 hours making this moose hide octopus bag. She says, “Currently, the top is done and I am preparing to put it all together. The strap is done and I am lining that with hide using picot-edge beading. I plan to assemble the top in a similar manner. The tentacles will be lined separately from the bag so that eight tentacles hang down from the main bag. The bag will also be lined using picot-edge beading. I've add more details to the bag, little flowers all over.” Photo courtesy of Brenda Mahan
Athabacan Artist Brenda Mahan has spent over 100 hours making this moose hide octopus bag. She says, “Currently, the top is done and I am preparing to put it all together. The strap is done and I am lining that with hide using picot-edge beading. I plan to assemble the top in a similar manner. The tentacles will be lined separately from the bag so that eight tentacles hang down from the main bag. The bag will also be lined using picot-edge beading. I’ve add more details to the bag, little flowers all over.” Photo courtesy of Brenda Mahan
A close up view of Brenda Mahan's beadwork. Photo by Angela Gonzalez
A close up view of Athabascan Artist Brenda Mahan’s beadwork. Photo by Angela Gonzalez

Although, I am no expert at beading or determining if someone is a master bead artist, I feel Brenda’s artwork is exemplary. Her work reflects her extensive research on the style and technique of Athabascan beadwork. One of Brenda’s latest projects is a moose hide octopus bag. It is approximately 11” x 15” with beadwork on one side. Her center flower is her attempted to re-create using an older book called, Northern Athabascan Art, A Beadwork Tradition by Kate C. Duncan. Brenda says, “Sometimes I feel like I am connecting to that person when I try to re-create their old flower pattern. The patterns are more difficult than ones that I’ve done in the past. I’ve learned about color and contrast working with these more difficult patterns. I feel like the past speaks to me through my beadwork.”

Brenda studied several octopus bags in museums. However, she has never been able to handle one. The bag is going to be lined. The shape of the bag with the tentacles fascinates her, and she has enjoyed making it. Brenda has been careful in planning and creating the bag using old traditional flower patterns and moose hide throughout.

Angela Gonzalez wears earrings made by Athabascan Artist Brenda Mahan
Angela Gonzalez wears earrings made by Athabascan Artist Brenda Mahan

Brenda sells some of her beadwork at the Alaska Native Medical Center gift shop in Anchorage, Alaska and the Fallon Paiute Shoshone Tribe Fox Peak in Fallon, Nevada. You can view some of Brenda’s work on Facebook, Instagram and Pinterest.

Brenda is grateful to friends and mentors, like Emma Forsberg and Glenda McKay, for assistance during the process of learning to bead. Brenda’s dream is to bead an Athabascan baby belt. Although, she knows it will be a large, costly and time-consuming project, she’s looking forward to creating one with full moose hide. One day, Brenda also like to create moccasins, mittens and different types of traditional Athabascan bags. She would love to make these items with moose hide and in the traditional manner as it seems to be becoming a lost tradition (creating them entirely out of moose hide).

I recently met her in Anchorage. Her face lights up when she talks about her work and the process. If I know one thing about artists, it is the fact that they love discussing process. She brought three pieces of artwork with her, and I enjoyed seeing the detail of her work. Brenda’s beadwork almost looks 3D, and I thought some beads were raised. She assured me that it was not raised.

As you can see, Brenda is very talented Athabascan bead working and artist. I admire how much she invests into the planning and creation of each of her pieces. Ana basee’ Brenda for sharing your work and passion!

It took Brenda Mahan nearly two years to complete this Athabascan firebag. It is 9.5” x 10” with a 60” wool yarn strap which hangs approximately 30”. Brenda says, “It is beaded on both sides and lined with cotton fabric. I utilized size 11 Japanese seed beads and it is edged with size 6 Japanese seed beads. I utilized black wool broadcloth to create the piece. On each side, there is a main flower in the center. These flowers are old patterns that I attempted to re-create. Although the overall design is my original, I referenced Northern Athabascan Art, A Beadwork Tradition by Kate C. Duncan to design my piece and to determine what was used to create a firebag.” Courtesy photo
It took Brenda Mahan, an Athabascan artist, nearly two years to complete this Athabascan firebag. It is 9.5” x 10” with a 60” wool yarn strap which hangs approximately 30”. Brenda says, “It is beaded on both sides and lined with cotton fabric. I utilized size 11 Japanese seed beads and it is edged with size 6 Japanese seed beads. I utilized black wool broadcloth to create the piece. On each side, there is a main flower in the center. These flowers are old patterns that I attempted to re-create. Although the overall design is my original, I referenced Northern Athabascan Art, A Beadwork Tradition by Kate C. Duncan to design my piece and to determine what was used to create a firebag.” Courtesy photo

 

Athabascan Artist Brenda Mahan made this wall hanging, entitled Alaskan Angel. It is made of moose hide and is 10.5"x12". Brenda says, “Alaskan Angels flies high above the Northern Lights (which is the fringe) so that she can have the best view, constantly watching and guarding over everything. Her dog is her constant companion, watching over Alaskan Angel; pure love and always together. Just like her dog, Alaskan Angel will be loyal to you, watch over you and love you unconditionally. Believe in Angels.” Brenda donated it to the Friends of Pets Quilt Auction, which will take place on October 7, 2017, 11 am-2 pm at the University Center Mall in Anchorage, Alaska. Photo courtesy of Brenda Mahan
Athabascan Artist Brenda Mahan made this wall hanging, entitled Alaskan Angel. It is made of moose hide and is 10.5″x12″. Brenda says, “Alaskan Angels flies high above the Northern Lights (which is the fringe) so that she can have the best view, constantly watching and guarding over everything. Her dog is her constant companion, watching over Alaskan Angel; pure love and always together. Just like her dog, Alaskan Angel will be loyal to you, watch over you and love you unconditionally. Believe in Angels.” Brenda donated it to the Friends of Pets Quilt Auction, which will take place on October 7, 2017, 11 am-2 pm at the University Center Mall in Anchorage, Alaska. Photo courtesy of Brenda Mahan
Heather Kendall-Miller received an award from the Alaska Federation of Natives in 2014. Photo by Angela Gonzalez
Alaska Native/Indigenous People

Athabascan Lawyer – Heather Kendall-Miller

Heather Kendall-Miller in her office at the Native American Rights Fund. Photo by Angela Gonzalez
Heather Kendall-Miller in her office at the Native American Rights Fund. Photo by Angela Gonzalez

It took me about a year of thinking about it until I got the courage to approach Heather Kendall-Miller for an interview. To me, Heather is way up there with our top Alaska Native leaders of today. I went to an event at the First Alaskans Institute where Heather was the featured guest. It was a coffee time event, where we had a chance to learn more about Heather. I told her I was intimidated to approach her, and she told me just to reach out. I met with her not too long after that to learn more about her.

Heather is Dena’ina Athabascan with family ties from the Dillingham, Alaska area. She has been a staff attorney in the Anchorage, Alaska office of the Native American Rights Fund (NARF) for the past 23 years. Heather’s legal experience includes cases involving subsistence, tribal sovereignty, human rights, and taxation. She is well-known for being instrumental in winning the Katie John subsistence hunting and fishing rights case in 2001. Heather has worked with other Alaska Native communities like the Native Village of Venetie, the Native Village of Kluti Kaah, the Native Village of Barrow, and the Nome Eskimo community.

I asked Heather if she has any advice for Alaska Native women who have goals aspirations and challenges to overcome. Heather received a history degree, magna cum laude, from the University of Alaska, Fairbanks (UAF) (1988). She received her M.A. J.D. from Harvard University Law School (1991). This did not come easy because she left a tough relationship in order to succeed in law school. She said, “My desire to achieve an education was detrimental to the relationship.” The closer she got to achieving her educational goals, the more threatened he became. Heather was 33 year old when she started school.

With a deep passion for learning more about federal Indian law and social justice, Heather worked hard to earn her law degree as a single mother. The summer before law school, she attended a pre-law summit in Albuquerque for Native American woman. She saw other women struggling with domestic violence issues. One lady was even dragged down the hall at a hotel. It made her realize she had a decision to make. Heather tells her story not because she’s looking for sympathy, but to give hope to women who may be in a similar situation.

“I had a goal of getting an education for years. Going to school and studying was a way to maintain control of my life. It gave me a focus. This is what I want to do.” – Heather Kendall-Miller

In her junior year at UAF, Heather took a master’s degree class on federal Indian law. She connected to the history of federal Indian law and the political relationships. Heather researched why Alaska Native people are beneficiaries of services and the role they have in relationship with the federal government. She thought to herself, ‘This is something I can do.’

When Heather started school, her daughter was in junior high school. Heather grappled with the potential impacts of moving her daughter out of state when she went to law school. School and career changes can impact children and it was a challenge to maintain balance in her life. It was a struggle, but she persisted. After earning her law degree, her goal was to pass the bar and get a job.

Heather met and married Lloyd Miller and they had a child. Her first daughter had a child and Heather and Lloyd raised her. Both girls are now earning their college education. Heather hopes to retire by the end of the year. Her mom and dad are 103 and 93 respectively and she wants to spend more time with them.

Heather’s Dena’ina mother died when she was very young and she was raised by her her white father and later on her white stepmother. Although Heather didn’t grow up in a traditional Native household, her father instilled in her the value of helping people. She is driven by issues and the needs of her clients, which makes her an effective advocate. Heather has a strong interest in serving Native people and standing up and defending Native rights.

Heather Kendall-Miller received an award from the Alaska Federation of Natives in 2014. Photo by Angela Gonzalez
Heather Kendall-Miller received an award from the Alaska Federation of Natives in 2014. Photo by Angela Gonzalez

Working as a staff attorney for NARF was her dream job because it provide her an opportunity to focus on the issues of institutional racism. Heather is concerned about the global changes taking place right now and what it means to Alaska Native people, culture and the traditional way of life in respect to their connection to land and resources. Heather respected the late Katie John for insisting on continuing her way of life. She said, “It’s a story about resilience, survivance. Survival is more than just surviving – you do survive by moving forward.”

I asked Heather how can people put culture into their lives if they weren’t raised in a traditional Native household or who live away from their people. Heather maintains relationships with people and observes Native culture and how people relate to each other. She incorporates Native values into her life. Heather’s daughter connects with other Native American students at college, and is finding ways to learn the Dena’ina language.

For those who are aspiring to be lawyers, Heather says, “Be clear in your head what aspect of lawyering you want to do.” She compared lawyers with doctors, and how they can specialize in many areas. For instance, ask yourself if you want to focus on tribal rights, Alaska Native corporations, or non-profit organizations, etc. How you see yourself is also important. Think of ways you can attend law school for three years with expenses. Once you earn your degree, you still have to pass the bar exam.

Maintaining balance with a family and career has not always been easy, but Heather strives to inspire others to move beyond their circumstances to achieve their goals. She recommends focusing on balance and wellness and finding ways to replenish energy especially when your life is busy. I appreciated and enjoyed getting to know Heather a little bit. Chin’an to Heather for sharing your story!