Alaska Native/Indigenous People, Athabascan in the Spotlight

Blanche Sam – Athabascan & Iñupiaq Beader

Blanche Sam and her daughter, Harper. Photo by Nadine Carroll

My niece, Blanche Sam (Athabascan/Iñupiaq) of Hughes, has really come into her own in the past couple of years with her beadwork, and I hadto interview her. I love her colorful earrings and creativity with using materials, like dentalium shells and hide. Enaa baasee’ Blanche for agreeing to share your beading journey on the Athabascan Woman Blog!

Blanche Sam and her family. Photo by Nadine Carroll

Blanche’s parents are Lester and Ella Sam of Hughes. Her paternal grandparents were the late Frank Sam, Elma (Nictune) Sam and biological (Blanche Henry); and maternal grandparents are the late Arthur Ambrose and Alice (Simon) Ambrose. Blanche now lives in Fairbanks with her own family, including Zeb Cadzow, and children Dakota and Harper Cadzow. She earned an associate degree in accounting from at the University of Alaska Fairbanks and currently works for her village corporation, K’oyitl’ots’ina, Limited.

“My mom and grandmothers did it and were so good at it and it is a big part of our culture as Alaska Natives.” – Blanche Sam (Koyukon Athabascan/Iñupiaq)

Blanche Sam sewed calf skin boots and a martin hat for her daughter. Photo by Blanche Sam

Blanche learned to bead in elementary school from her grandmothers and aunt. Some of her first memories of beading and sewing were in school. Blanche remembers her grandmothers and aunt receiving a grant to get furs, hide, beads and other supplies. She learned to sew calf skin boots with help from her grandmothers, Alice and Rita. Her aunt, Hazel, was the first one to teach her how to bead earrings with a basic pattern with bugle beads.

Beaded earrings by Blanche Sam

After buying several pairs of earrings in 2016, she thought, ‘I should just make my own.’ She began making her own jewelry and connected with it. Now when she’s not busy with her kids, you can find her at her beading table. She invested in supplies and challenged herself with some ambitions first projects. She has learned a lot and improved since the beginning. I’ve loved watching the progression of her styles and themes as she has shared them on social media.

Brilliant Beads by Blanche booth. Photo by Blanche Sam

Blanche stared sharing pictures of her earrings on social media and people were interested and started ordering from her. She found a higher demand once she started an online presence as Brilliant Beads by Blanche. After creating a small business, she started selling more, created a logo, ordered business cards, and learned to take better photos of her work. Although making extra money is nice, she appreciates the therapeutic nature of beading and how it connects her to her culture giving her a sense of purpose. Blanche says, “It allowed me to relax, escape and filled me with purpose.”

Blanche’s Advice for Beaders Who Want to Create a Small Business

  • Find and perfect a niche.
  • Having booths at bazaars is a great way to get known and get the word out about your product.
  • Create an online presence. Her online presence has especially helped increase her sales at bazaars.
  • Learn to take good photographs of your work in natural light.
  • Search for ideas on Pinterest for inspiration and help with your creations. It is also a great place to get ideas for creating an eye catching and inviting booth.

Overall, Blanche says, “Do not give up if you make mistakes. I made a lot and learned from each one of them.” She sells about 60-80 pairs for each bazaar she attends. It is impressive to see how she has grown in her beading journey and how she has come close to selling out at her last bazaars. Way to go, Blanche!

You can find Blanche Sam of Brilliant Beads by Blanche on TwitterInstagram and Facebook.

Alaska Native/Indigenous People, Entertainment

Mary Lou Rock – An Alaska Native Actress

Mary Lou Rock wears traditional Yup'ik regalia. Photo courtesy of Mary Lou Rock
Mary Lou Rock wears traditional Yup’ik regalia. Photo courtesy of Mary Lou Rock

I met Mary Lou Rock at the Rural Alaska Honors Institute (RAHI) in 1991. We both attended RAHI, a six-week college preparatory course. I remember Mary Lou as an outgoing person who always had a smile for everyone. I ran into Mary Lou about a year ago at a RAHI Reunion. I was impressed to see that she is pursuing her acting career. Mary Lou is currently living in Los Angeles. I caught up with her during her recent visit to Anchorage.

Mary Lou decided to move to LA after her divorce earlier this year. She felt she needed a change and to be on her own. Mary Lou had been to LA before and fell in love with it. Jean Bruce Scott, Producing Artistic Director and Co-creator of Native Voices at the Autry in LA, was involved in producing Cikiuteklluku and saw her perform. Jean told Mary about staged readings at the Autry in May and asked if would be interested. Mary was scared, but agreed to attend.

Mary Lou admires Jean and says, “The fact that she saw something special in me gave me the confidence to do make the move to LA.  I can’t express how grateful I am to her for that.”

Mary Lou Rock is an Alaska Native actress. Photo by BJP Photography
Mary Lou Rock is an Alaska Native actress. Photo by BJP Photography

Mary Lou always dreamed of becoming an actress, but she didn’t think it was possible. She was painfully shy from junior high school through college. Sometimes her stomach hurt just talking to people, even those she knew. Mary says, “It wasn’t until I worked at the Alaska Native Heritage Center and felt culturally whole that I came out of my shell.” She discovered she loved talking to people from all over the world. Not long after that, she did a voiceover for the American Lung Association of Alaska and felt a sense of excitement she had never felt before. People encouraged her to do more of that but she didn’t know where to start. 

Mary auditioned for a speaking role in Big Miracle with Drew Barrymore, but didn’t get a part. Then, she was called to be a stand in for another actor. Even though she wasn’t going to be on camera, she was filled with excitement to be on set and enjoyed watching people buzzing around her who were taking light readings and making sure the set was just right. Mary says, “I guess my happiness made an impression.” She was called in again a couple weeks later to be a background actor with no lines.

They didn’t end up using her, but during a break between shots she was standing in an open space and the director Ken Kwapis rushed passed her, looked at her, and said, “Hi Mary!” Mary couldn’t believe it. She had never met him before.

On the third and final time, Mary got called in as background on the last day of shooting. She says, “When I got to the set, Mr. Kwapis’ face lit up and he greeted me.” Mary’s heart jumped! She was playing a hotel clerk. As a background actor (or extra) you have to mouth words and not actually say them so the microphone doesn’t pick up your voice. As she was doing that Mr. Kwapis said, “Give her lines.” One of the crew put a mic on her and whispered, “You don’t know how lucky you are. Actors work in Hollywood for years and never get a speaking role.” 

Mary Lou Rock performs in a play called, Assimilation, by Jack Dalton. Courtesy photo
Mary Lou Rock performs in a play called, Assimilation, by Jack Dalton. Courtesy photo

Mary felt like she was in a dream world. Her shot was the last of the day. She had at least 20 people watching her as she walked in the door and said her line. She was in heaven in front of the camera.  Afterward, Mr. Kwapis gave her a big hug. That was the day she thought, “Maybe I’ve got something.  Maybe I can be an actress.”

It was because of that speaking part that Mary was able to become part of the Screen Actors Guild (SAG, now SAG-AFTRA). Mary says, “I will be forever thankful to Mr. Kwapis for giving me lines, but mostly for remembering my name and inspiring me to fulfill my dream.”

Being an actor has brought Mary to life. For years, Mary suffered from extreme fatigue, and it got so bad at one point that she couldn’t work for two years. There were days she could barely move. She felt useless. However, through treatment, changes in her diet and getting regular exercise, she began to recover. 

It wasn’t until her first lead role in the play, Cikiuteklluku, that Mary’s life truly changed. She was working 8-12 hour days and says, “For the first time since I was 12, I felt energized.” From then on, Mary got better and better, and felt like she was doing what she was meant to do.

Mary’s most widely known role is probably the part she played in a 2012 Super Bowl commercial.

Locally, she gets the most recognition the health education video called, “What’s The Big Deal?” because it plays at the Alaska Native hospital. Mary also had lead roles in several theater productions. 

I asked Mary what she does to prepare for roles, and she exclaims, “Memorize!  Memorize! Memorize!”  After she memorizes lines, then she can have fun with it. Mary says, “I pray as I get into my roles, that I will do my best to honor the story, the writer, the director, and my fellow actors.”

Mary says, “I am not the star of the show. The story is the star and we all work together to tell it.” Mary also does her research. Like when she played Raven in The Winter Bear, she watch ravens around Anchorage. Mary studied how they moved and talked to each other and read about their behavior.

Mary Lou Rock and her Dadda. Courtesy photo
Mary Lou Rock and her Dadda. Courtesy photo

Mary’s family and friends are her biggest influences, and her parents are her main mentors. She says, “They taught me that character is your most important attribute and to always treat people with kindness and love.” Mary’s mentors also include Jean Bruce Scott from Native Voices at the Autry and Ken Kwapis, director of Big Miracle. She says, “They both believed in me enough to take a chance on me.” Mary’s fellow actors are also her mentors and says, “I always amazed how much I learn from them.”

One of Mary’s biggest challenges was not knowing where to start. Mary says, “It is especially hard in LA where you are one of thousands and thousands of people pursuing acting.” Another challenge includes promoting herself. Mary says, “Being Native, you are not supposed to talk about yourself.” She overcame that challenge when one of her mentors told her not to look at it as promoting herself but happily offering her best to the world. “That change in perspective really helped me to become more confident in myself,” says Mary.

“Being Inupiaq/Yupik Eskimo has been a huge advantage to getting roles in Alaska. All of my characters locally have had ties to being Native. In LA it’s a different story. Since I am half white and they do not have a lot of Eskimo roles and I do not look particularly Native American Indian, I get categorized as Caucasian. But it doesn’t mean I get fewer roles, just not the ones that are specifically Native.” – Mary Lou Rock

Mary Lou Rock accepts a diploma from RAHI in 1991. Photo by Angela Gonzalez
Mary Lou Rock accepts a diploma from RAHI in 1991. Photo by Angela Gonzalez

Mary’s advice for aspiring actors:

  • Do what your heart tells you.
  • Being an actor is not glamorous most of the time. It’s a lot of work, long hours, dealing with rejection on a regular basis, and there is no steady paycheck unless you make it big.
  • If you do decide acting is right for you, make sure you have boundaries and stick to them. There are a lot of people who will try to take advantage of you. Surround yourself with people who have your best interest at heart.
  • Network and meet people who share your passion.
  • Have fun!

Mary Lou is living her dream and enjoys acting. She says, “The exhilaration I get from acting is well worth the hard work. I did not go to Hollywood to become famous. I don’t need to make it big. I am happy and I’ve already made it.” I admire Mary for her tenacity to move all the way to LA to live out her dream. I also admire her positive attitude in every role she plays. Mary is one brave Alaska Native woman! Go Mary!


ABOUT MARY LOU ROCK

Mary Lou Rock performs at the Native Voices at the Autry. Photo courtesy of Mary Lou Rock
Mary Lou Rock performs at the Native Voices at the Autry. Photo courtesy of Mary Lou Rock

Mary Lou “Baayin” Rock is from Shaktoolik, a small Inupiaq village in northwest Alaska. As a girl her dream of being an actress seemed unattainable, but upon moving to Anchorage she began doing voiceover work and appearing in local commercials. It wasn’t until her involvement in Everybody Loves Whales that her love for acting was realized and received union status with the Screen Actors Guild. She has since appeared in “What’s the Big Deal”, a short film for the Alaska Native Medical Center, and “Sled”, the 2012 Super Bowl commercial for Suzuki. 

In her theatrical debut, she played Liza in the November, 2012 developmental production of Holly Stanton’s Cikiuteklluku: Giving Something Away. Her latest roles include Teacher in Jack Dalton’s Assimilation and Raven/Miranda in The Winter Bear further nurtured her love for the art of visual storytelling. She recently moved to Los Angeles to pursue her acting career where she was featured in readings at Native Voices at the Autry.