Beading feels natural for Amelia Rivera.
She sat down at a table in her apartment on Douglas Island in February, rhythmically threading two needles in and out of a piece she’s been working on recently, a white raven, made out of hundreds of little beads threaded together based off of one of her great-grandmother’s patterns. Years ago, she was given the Tlingit name of her great-grandmother Emma Francis Marks—Jiyal’ áxch—who was a master beader.
“It’s been here all along, and I didn’t know it,” Rivera said of learning to bead. “So, I picked up some beads and I went for it. There’s something to be said about the person’s name that you carry. I tuned in, and I listened to what felt right, and it felt right because she was guiding me.”
She just started beading last year, and started Free Bird Designs, an online shop to sell her pieces on Jan. 1.
“Beading has been a huge part of my healing,” Rivera said. “I haven’t done it before now, because I was super ashamed of who I was.”
Rivera’s mother is Tlingit — Raven, Sockeye — and Filipino. Her father is Puerto Rican. She was raised in Juneau, and is a teacher and social worker by trade. Intricate art forms are a part of her heritage on both sides of her family — the Tlingit being master beaders — and the Taino, indigenous people of Puerto Rico, being experts in the historical art of handmade lace and needlepoint.
“I didn’t feel like I fit any place,” Rivera said. “I didn’t feel Tlingit enough. I didn’t feel Filipino enough. I didn’t feel Puerto Rican enough. And I grew up here in town where there weren’t a lot of people of color who look like me. So it was a huge source of shame for a long time, especially because of systematic oppression.”
A modern approach
She gets most of her beads from Regalia Arts and Beads, the bead store in Juneau owned by Frances Andrews. Jessie Hermann-Haywood is another beader in town who also gets her beads from there.
Hermann-Haywood sells her beadwork on Instagram mostly under her shop Instagram @ruby.rouser, a shop name inspired by her grandmother, too. She’s also sold her work at Wolfsong Boutique and at some maker’s markets.
“I learned in elementary school from my grandma,” Hermann-Haywood said in an interview at Heritage Cafe in the Baranof Hotel, Best Western Signature Collection. “I would go to her house on the weekends, she taught me how to do that. I never really did it again until about a year ago, last winter.”
Ruby is a special name to her, as it is her grandma’s name and her dog’s name. Hermann-Haywood is Aleut, but she described her personal beading style as more modern.
“There’s Native earrings that have a certain aesthetic that look a certain way, and I haven’t really ventured into that too much, mostly because it’s not necessarily my style, and I’m not trying to step on anyone’s toes that is doing more traditional work,” she said. “I definitely feel like I’m using an old technique to do more modern stuff.”
There are some common stitches, but Hermann-Haywood said she tends to make up a lot of it as she goes. She mainly sticks to earrings because that’s what inspires her most.
“It’s such a tedious task, I have to really want to do it,” she said and that’s why she doesn’t really like special orders.
“It takes a little bit of the creativity out of it,” she said. “But I find when ladies give me color restrictions I do good with that, and I end up making a really bada— earring. I’m really creative within parameters. Creative jobs are the ones that are stimulating the most.”
She used to work at a radio station in Juneau, but now she sells her beadwork full time.
Many times, she will go outside on a hike with her beading supplies and her dog, and listen to podcasts in nature while she does her work. She has been asked to sell her earrings in some businesses in Juneau, but right now, she’s focused on selling directly to customers because she makes more money that way. It’s hard enough as it is to keep up with demand, she said.
Keeping traditions alive
Another Juneau woman, Kathy Starr, also started learning beadwork from her grandmother, over 30 years ago.
“I used to put my hands in her beads when I was five years old,” Starr said. She’s Tlingit, from the Eagle Shark clan.
Working at Sealaska Heritage Institute, Starr started displaying her beadwork in display cases there and now sells some of her work, too. She mostly makes lighter cases and earrings, and wants to start beading moccasins.
Beadwork helps keep Starr going through tough times, she said. She hasn’t been able to see one of her daughters in two years because her daughter was moved to a home in Anchorage for people with special needs.
“Beading kind of helps me get therapy,” Starr said. “I just like creating. I fell in love with it when I was little. I think because of the issues I’ve had to go through in my life, and today, and to keep calm and quiet and not cry all the time…I’ve been using my beadwork to keep me busy to where I’m not breaking down all the time. But I also love doing my beadwork because it reminds me of my grandmother growing up and I’m keeping the tradition going.”
Working with beads comes easy to her, because she enjoys doing it, she said.
“For me, it’s like my Native tradition,” Starr said. “I’m keeping our tradition up.”