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ANCHORAGE, Alaska — As a child, Angela Łot’oydaatlno Gonzalez learned traditional Koyukon Athabascan beadwork and like most children in her rural Alaskan village of Huslia, she learned the meaning of the colors and symbols of each piece. She and her aunties, along with the other women and children in Huslia, made beaded clothing, jewelry and other garments for members of the community.
Eventually, Gonzalez moved to Anchorage, where she married and had two young daughters. For a time, however, she got disconnected from beading.
But when her daughters were old enough, she got back into the tradition to make a pair of beaded slippers as a gift for a friend. As she sewed the beads onto the slippers, she would start to recall all the times she enjoyed with other women in her family and kids, the patterns made by her aunties, the love they would put into each bead. The moment was a reminder of how everything is connected through love and respect.
“I’m doing something that my late great-grandma, and my grandma — they’ve all done this tradition. And so, when I am beading, I feel really close to them,” Gonzalez told “Indie Alaska.” “It’s like a spiritual connection.”
Angela Gonzalez walks through several beading techniques on her YouTube channel. Video by the artist.
The concept of respect in Athabascan culture is influenced by the environment. The sheer size of Alaska — about a third of the size of the continental U.S. — ranges from mountainous snow-covered peaks to flat tundra. Alaska is home to many different types of animals and naturally growing edible plants. Because of the environment’s beauty and dangers, many Alaska Native people raise their children with a deep respect for the land.
Many of their traditional crafts, cuisine, dances and events echo this respect.
“The same amount of respect that we have for land and our environment also transfers to beading and sewing,” Gonzalez said, adding that most of the homemade items — the regalia; kuspuks, a traditional pullover shirt or coat; belts; mukluks; and slippers — are made with symbols of the mountains, flowers, snow, animals and bugs found in the environment.
“When you’re looking at Athabascan beading, it’s just like you can feel the spirit by the colors of the design,” Gonzalez said.
For Gonzalez, it fills her up with joy and pride to see the reaction of someone when they receive their slippers.
“I have a strong gift from my ancestors and my aunties and family,” she said. “I want to share that too.”
This report originally appeared on Alaska Public Media’s “Indie Alaska.”
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