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.”
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.
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.
It is amazing how social media and a web presence can bring people together. I befriended Angniq Woods-Orrison (Koyukon Athabascan) on Instagram this summer. She posts inspirational stories touching on topics including identity, body confidence, personal goals and wrestling. I just had to find out more about Angniq, so was happy when she agreed to be interviewed for the Athabascan Woman Blog.
Angniq is from Rampart, Alaska. Her mother is Brooke Wright. Angniq was raised by her maternal grandparents, Arthur Joseph, Jr. and Janet Woods. Brooke was a teenage mother, and her parents became Angniq’s guardians as she finished school. Angniq said, “I was blessed to have met most of my great grandparents. My elders laid a great foundation for my identity as a child from a village along the Yukon, and as a Koyukon Athabascan.”
Angniq is the granddaughter of Elizabeth Wiehl, Jenny Joseph, Walter Woods and Judy (Starr) Woods. She has family ties to Tanana, Manley Hot Springs, and Angoon. Angniq grew up as one of the only babies-at the time-in Rampart, and felt an enormous amount of love and care. As a result, it gave her confidence, along with the ability to be bold and proud of who she was and where she came from.
“I went to a boarding school in the Southeast part of Alaska. I’m from the interior, I was 800 miles away from home. I’m a frequent traveler because of my distance from home, and also for competitions. I competed in #mehsxc #mehswrestling basketball #mehsNYO ❤? this was surprising for a #koyukonathabascan who is from the village of #rampartak which has less than 100 people. The Rampart school shutdown when I was a child, so I grew up between there and Fairbanks. I learned my cultural history, my songs, my dances, my subsistence lifestyle. I don’t know my language. The boarding school I went to was originally run by the BIA before being taken over by the state. During that time, it was a hospital for the tb epidemic, and a place native students where forced to go starting at the age of 4. This was an attempt at complete assimilation: often being abused mentally, physically, and sexually. This happened across the U.S, and this generation is still alive. I don’t know exactly what happened to my great grandmother, but she didn’t teach her children their language. My childhood is shaped around growing into, and unknowingly, healing from my family’s trauma by keeping my culture alive in myself, the next goal being to learn my language. Going to college in California for wrestling is a new part of my identity, and it’s important for me to further my education for my community, but at times it hurts to be away from home. This is my open book.” – Angniq Woods-Orrison (Koyukon Athabascan), posted on Instagram (@Angniq)
Many small Alaskan towns struggle with the minimum number of students to keep a school open. With less than 10 students, Rampart’s school shutdown before Angniq entered elementary school, so her family split time between the Rampart and Fairbanks. She struggled in a predominantly white elementary school, but found comfort when she attended Effie Kokrine Charter School. Angniq says, “This Native-staffed, -inspired, and -centered education opened up a new perspective to my Indigenous identity.”
Angniq had strong politically-active role models growing up, including her aunt, Georgianna Lincoln, and uncle, Albert Kookesh. She attended countless Native gatherings for her tribe, corporations, potlatches and festivals with her grandmother, Janet. This exposed her to the power, beauty, and love in Native communities.
Angniq attended Mt. Edgecumbe High School (MEHS) in Sitka, a boarding school which is 800 miles away from her hometown. She was encouraged to grow, accept challenges, and develop herself in every way. Angniq took extra classes, joined sports (cross country, wrestling, basketball, Native Youth Olympics), and joined battle of the books. She was inducted into a campus volunteer group (L.E.A.D.S), and was a member of the National Honor Society. Angniq graduated winning multiple regional and state championships, along with earning the Lillian Lane Award and the national Tricia Saunders award.
Angniq decided she wanted to wrestle in college, which meant she would have to find a school out of state. She attends Menlo College, and is a scholarship recipient and is working toward a degree in psychology. It has not been easy having to pay tuition to private school on top of her participation on the wrestling team, which like having a full-time job. At one point, she took more classes than she was comfortable and it hurt her grades. She was burnt out, but was thankful when countless people came to her aid from home and within my new Californian family. Angniq is currently a junior, has earned more scholarships to ease the financial burden. Her wrestling team has placed 7th and 5th in the nation. Despite having a full schedule and a part-time job, she has made it onto the Dean’s list and currently sit at a 3.4 GPA.
Hundreds of people have given Angniq support to help her achieve her goals, including her community along the Yukon River, a growing Indigenous community of friends, MEHS alumni/family, and her new international family.
The journey to success has not been a fast process for Angniq. She points out she did not start wrestling until she was a freshman in high school, and didn’t win a match until she was a senior. In 2015, Alaska sanctioned a girl’s state championships for the first time, and she became one of the first state champions. When she decided to wrestle in college, the process repeated.
Angniq also attributes her success to her family, friends, classmates, teachers, coaches and teammates. She says, “I’ve been financially supported, encouraged, tutored, pushed, yelled at, consoled, and guided in every way possible. To be alive is a testimony to our ancestor’s resilience in surviving genocide, assimilation and racism.”
Angniq was exposed to alcoholism or drugs and saw the impacts it had on people and knew at a young age she didn’t want to drink. She was inspired from Geraldine Charlie of Minto who told her story of family and sobriety at a Doyon meeting. Angniq draws strength from living her traditional lifestyle and practicing her culture. She loves fishing on the Yukon River and participating in cultural arts. One of her goals is to learn her language, Denaakk’e (Koyukon Athabascan). Angniq started learning words and tries to use them in everyday conversation. She appreciates being able to call upon relatives anytime she has questions.
“Alcohol was introduced to Native peoples as a tool of genocide, in the hopes that it would tear us apart. We struggle, but we still survive. The point I am trying to make is: we are burden with extreme hardships of mental health issues, poor health, and poverty within the Indigenous communities. This is another manifestation of white supremacy and it takes a great amount of knowledge and research to understand the systematic nature of this racial hegemony. There will be walls for Indigenous people no matter which direction life brings them, but there is a great liberation in the pursuit of happiness. As I continue to learn about America and my culture, I love myself more. As I continue to meet people from around the world, travel, and live an active lifestyle, I love myself more. At times, I am overwhelmed with oppression as a Native woman, and with the struggle to further my education, but it forced me to bloom in the most beautiful ways. Find your community, find yourself, and continue to live as a marker for our ancestors’ resilience.” – Angniq Woods-Orrison (Koyukon Athabascan)
After undergraduate college, Angniq’s goal is to earn a master’s degree. She hopes to work for the tribes, maybe in a village, at a corporation or for an Indigenous program. Angniq’s dream is to bring more mental health resources to Alaskan Natives (or any tribe) that encourage places to learn culture and language. She says, “With more mental health resources, I want to help people recover and strive away from addiction, depression and suicide. In empowering my own people, I want to help other oppressed groups of people, which include women, minorities, the LBTQ community and people of non-biblical faiths.”
I am impressed with how Angniq is working toward her goals and not giving up despite being far from home. She is the only Alaska Native on her campus, but connects with other Indigenous people on social media. Angniq learns about tribal issues on Twitter. Find her on Twitter at @beedubs767 and Instagram at @Angniq. Enaa baasee’ Angniq for sharing your story and inspiring others!
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.”
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.
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.
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!
Tabetha Toloff (Koyukon Athabascan and Russian) grew up as a kid in Nikiski and has lived in Anchorage for over 30 years. Her beloved grandpa, Charles Peter Toloff, was born in 1921 in Fort Yukon, and later homesteaded in Nikiski where much of her family lived. Tabetha’s great- grandmother was Margaret Albert Reed of Rampart. Her great-grandfather was Peter Toloff and was from Russian. Grandpa Charles is now 95 years old, is like a father to Tabetha, and is the oldest living original shareholder of his Native Corporation, CIRI.
Tabetha is married and has a daughter and two step-sons. I have known Tabetha since the early 2000’s. We served on the board for the Alaska Native Professional Association (ANPA) for a number of years. Since our ANPA days, we have been busy with our lives and I was glad to catch up with her recently.
Tabetha’s passion for education led her to earn her Master of Organizational Leadership degree with a concentration in Servant Leadership from Gonzaga University; her Bachelor of Arts in Organizational Management from Alaska Pacific University (APU); and an Associate in Applied Science degree in Business from UAA. In 2014, she completed APU’s Alaska Native Executive Leadership Program. Alaska Pacific University (APU) recently highlighted Tabetha as one of their new board members and featured alum.
Tabetha is currently the chief administrative officer of Cook Inlet Tribal Council (CITC). Prior to joining CITC, she oversaw the Alaska Native Program for Alyeska Pipeline Service Company and its associated commitments to the Alaska Native Utilization Agreement, scholarships, internships, employee development, community outreach, and stakeholder relations.
Tabetha serves on the Alaska Native Heritage Center Board of Directors as Development Committee chair, and is chair of the Alaska Native Shareholder Development Action Group. She is the President of the Bering Straits Foundation Board of Director, as well as a member of the University of Alaska (UAA) Alaska Native Advisory Council.
Tabetha credits her Grandpa Charles with teaching her a strong work ethic. He is family-oriented, does for himself and helps others. He inspired Tabetha to give back to her community and share with others. She has worked with organizations that help advance Alaska Native people, whether it is with direct services, scholarships, job creation, education, shareholder development and more.
Tabetha is a dual shareholder of Bering Straits Native Corporation and CIRI. She was grateful to receive scholarship support from The CIRI Foundation while pursuing her degrees. Like many young Alaska Native people who weren’t raised around the same traditions held by their Alaska Native elders, she didn’t grow up knowing or learning about her cultural heritage, ANCSA, or what it meant to be Alaska Native.
In her mid-20’s, Tabetha set out to give back by working for and volunteering with Alaska Native organizations as a way to learn more about her culture. She made it her mission to learn more about Alaska Native people, culture and ANCSA. Tabetha felt she wasn’t ever easily identified as being Alaska Native and many times found herself in situations or conversations where she needed to explain her heritage to others. It gave her an opportunity to learn from others and she has been fortunate to work with people who have generously shared their culture with her, and some who have given her meaningful insight and gifts of knowledge.
Tabetha has treasured the many connections she has made with people she has worked and crossed paths with, including Willie Hensley. Last year, Willie gifted Tabetha with an Inupiaq name, Ivalu. It means dried caribou tendon or sinew that is commonly used to tie canoes together, and also means useful and strong. Tabetha loves the Alaska Native value of sharing, and appreciates the Inupiaq name being shared with her.
Many young Alaska Native people grew up as Tabetha did, and she shares some advice:
Be true to yourself
Don’t try to be something or someone that you’re not
If you want to learn about your culture, immerse yourself in it through many ways and people
You don’t have to look or live a certain way to be truly connected to your Alaska Native spirit and culture. It’s a way of being.
Tabetha is proud of the strides made by Alaska Native tribes, organizations and companies over the years. She is happy to have contributed to organizations, like ANPA, that have grown in the past 20 or so years. I have always admired Tabetha’s work ethic, sense of humor and willingness to ask questions and learn. I also admire the ways she mentors young people in a professional and volunteer capacity. Ana basee’ Tabetha for sharing a little bit about yourself!