Athabascan/Alaska Native Beading Techniques

By Shellie Braeuner
Beadwork is a part of traditional Native culture.

The Athabascan people live in central Alaska. The name “Athabascan” is a Cree word meaning “grass here and there.” The word originally described a large lake and grew to encompass all of the Native people living west of the lake. There are 11 different languages used by the Athabascan groups. Families or small groups traveled to four seasonal hunting and gathering camps. The larger group wintered together in a multi-family lodge.

History of Athabascan Beading

According to the Alaskan Native Heritage Center, beading predates European contact with the Athabascan people. Early people used bits of shell and natural stone for beads. People used tiny spalls of flint to bore holes in the material. They stitched beads to moccasins, mittens, tunics and parkas in addition to creating jewelry and spiritual items. Groups developed their own patterns and colors as they traveled throughout the year. Many people, both men and women, sewed and beaded together to create these useful works of art. They traded their handiwork with other local groups or gave them as gifts during winter potlatches. Modern Athabascan groups still bead with natural materials and modern glass and plastic seed beads.

Peyote Stitch

Because beads indicated wealth, artisans took great care to stitch the beads to the garment securely. The peyote stitch locks each bead in place with two different strands of thread. If one thread breaks, the second stitch holds the bead in place until repairs take place. Stitch a row of beads to the fabric. Tie off the thread but don’t cut it. Start the second row slightly off-center from the first. Stack the rows of beads like rows of bricks. Bring the needle up between the first and second bead of the first row. Push the needle through the first bead of the first row then back into the fabric. Bring the needle back up just above the joint between the first and second bead of the first row. Thread a bead onto the needle and push the needle back through the fabric. Bring the needle up on the far side of the bead. Push the needle through the second bead of the first row. Repeat the process of stitching each bead to the fabric and the bead below.

Bead Weaving

Bead weaving works well with tube beads and is used for both garments and jewelry. Cut two strands of beading thread and tie them together. Thread a bead on one of the needles. Push the second needle through the bead from the opposite direction. Move the bead so that the hole is horizontal. Now the thread from the right side of the bead is on the left and the thread from the left is on the right. Repeat the pattern, pushing the thread through each bead in opposite directions. Sew each strip of beads to a garment or use as fringe.

Beaded Caribou Tufting

Push the needle through the fabric and thread it through a bead. Push the needle back through the fabric as close to the first hole as possible. Pull the thread to form a loop over the fabric with the bead. Push a small tuft of caribou fur into the loop. Pull the thread tight, so that both sides of the fur stand up. Repeat stitching small tufts of caribou fur in place. Trim the fur to create a thick, uniform pile that allows the beads to reflect light.

About the Author

Based in Nashville, Shellie Braeuner has been writing articles since 1986 on topics including child rearing, entertainment, politics and home improvement. Her work has appeared in "The Tennessean" and "Borderlines" as well as a book from Simon & Schuster. Braeuner holds a Master of Education in developmental counseling from Vanderbilt University.