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Alaska ethnic necklace made of carved silver and lamp glass beads

A description of the Fairbanks art scene and Alaskan Native art that is a favorite for gifts and souvenirs. Read what you can find where.

  1. Fairbanks Has Many Great Artist
  2. Alaskan Native Art of the Various Regions
  3. The Athabatscan Beading Technique Permits Great Patterns
  4. Even the Trim is Beaded
  5. The Cut of a Kuspuk
  6. Tourists Love to Buy Alaskan Native Art as Souvenirs
  7. Where to Buy Pieces Made by Alaskan Native Artists
  8. References


Disclosure: There are affiliate links in this post.


Fairbanks Has Many Great Artists

Fairbanks has a vivid arts scene with a First Friday culture where galleries, specialty stores, and the visitor center host shows and receptions for the public while featuring one or more brilliant local artists. Guests can buy unique artworks directly from the artists. Exhibitions encompass oil, acryl, and watercolor paintings, sculptures (see this post on metal and paper gowns), jewelry, clothing, glasswork of all kind, potery, and more. Tourists love the diverse Alaskan Native art. The diversity results from the various different Native Nations that love in Alaska.


Alaska wood and stone carved artwork
Stone and wood carved circle of the five directions displaying hunting and fishing


Alaskan Native Art of the Various Regions

Here the word “local” refers to artists from as far away as north of the Alaska Range in the South to the Arctic Ocean in the North and the Interior all along the Tanana River and medium run of the Yukon River. Alaskan native artists living along the Arctic Ocean and the Bering Sea are famous for their seal mukluks, and ivory carving. Silver carving is big in the Alaska Southwest. In the Interior, Athabascan Indian artists are famous for their handmade bead works, dolls, and skin sewing as well as spruce, birch roouts and grass baskets. These baskets are so artful and well-made that there is even an entire collection  at the Museum of the North.


carved silver necklace with lamp beads
Carved silver necklace with red glass lamp beads on caribou hide


The Athabatscan Beading Technique Permits Great Patterns

What I find interesting about the beading is technique. On felt, it is done with one beading needle. Often  the artist uses waxed dental floss to sew on one bead at a time. When the artist applies the bead design directly on leather, they typically use two needles. A sewing needle serves to go thru the leather. Once on the right (beaded) side, the sewing needle secures the thread between the beads picked up with the beading needle. Then the artist pushes the sewing needle back to the left side while the beading needle remains on the right side all the time to pick up new beats on its thread. Sometimes the artist secures three or four beads at a time. It is fun watching the artist doing the beading.


#Alaska #travel beading on mittens
Athabascan Indian beading on a felt sewn onto shearling mittens



Even the Trim Is Beaded

Often the artist creates a bead finish at the edge of an ornament. To do so, the artist pushes the needle from the edge of the wrong side of the piece they want to ornament. Once the needle is on the right side,they pick up three beads on the string. Then they push the needle thru the right side at the edge just in touch with the first bead. Next, they put up the needle thru the center of the first bead, which is somehow tricky. It works best with beads with large wholes. In the next step, the artist puts two other beads on the thread, pushes the needle thru the right side at the edge just in touch with the first bead of the last three beads. Finall,y they put the needleup thru the center of that bead. Again two other beads are put on the thread, …. Repeat until the entire edge of the piece has its ornament.


 traditionally beaded hair pin
Front and back side of a modern barrette with traditional Athabascan Indian beading motive and ornamented edge using the technique described in the post



The Cut of a Kuspuk

Kuspuks have a straight up-and-down cut, and one-piece sleeves. At a reasult, they aren’t figure flattering, and do not show any feminine features. However, their design is genius with respect to life in Alaska. Therefore, most Alaskan women have at least one kuspuk. The hood, anmely, fits tight to the face, and prohibits mosquitoes from biting the neck when berry picking or gardening. Read more about what to do about mosquitoes in Fairbanks.

Traditionally, men and women wear their kuspuk over pants (jeans). It comes in two lengths – upper tights (tunic lengths) or just above the knee. The latter is for women only. Some women wear it as a dress. Sort kuspuks come with or without skirt. The former version is for women only. Pieces for men have no print.

In the front, they have a big pocket that is accessible from both sides. Along the pocket, hood, and the hem, or in case of a skirt, above the skirt attachment to the garment there is some embroidery and/or zig zag embellishment. The fabric is tightly weaved cotton with a small floral print. Check the Farmer’s Market for hand-made kuspuks.


influencer in Alaska kuspuk
Olivero jeans with Aggie Bostrom kuspak with skirtand carved silver lamp glass bead necklace



One of the most famous jewelry makers of the Interior is Judi Gumm. Her pieces look very organic, but a bit abstract. You often only on second sight recognize that the piece features an animal roaming the great outdoors. The photo below shows a brooch my husband gave me as a gift when we visited Denali Park for the first time. You can find more pieces of Judi Gumm at the link.


Judi Gumm rabbit with pearl
Judi Gumm rabbit with pearl


There exists also great Alaska made gold, quartz-gold, nuggests, and jade jewelry. Read more about the designs of Alaska jewelry.


Tourists Love to Buy Alaskan Native Art as Souvenirs

These native artists link the past to the current and bridge the cultures. Their bead works encompasses traditional items like beautifully beaded moose hide slippers or booties, regalia, head bands, mittens, and belts, as well as modern items like modern day hair pins with traditional beading embellishment (see above), or earrings with porcupine spines. The parkas and kuspuks are of great interest for the Fairbanks and tourist fashionistas.

Very expensive souvenirs are mittens, scarves and hats hand-made from Alaksa qiviut. Qiviut is the underwool of musk-oxen. It has the highest insulation factor, i.e. it keeps you warm at 40 below. Read more about musk-ox fashion and the unique knitting pattern.


humming bird cuff
Carved silver cuff with Hummingbird and forget-me-not motives



Where to Buy Pieces Made by Alaskan Native Artists

Fairbanks is a destination. Today you don’t come thru like it was the case during the times of the Iron Curtain. Thus, when you visit Fairbanks and don’t have a First Friday during your stay, you may find authentic Native Alaskan Art also at the Morris Thompson Visitor Center, in the souvenir stores and galleries in town as well as the souvenir section of the Museum of the North. In August, you find many artists offering their pieces at the Tanana Valley Fair. Just browse these places to see the diversity of Alaska art for yourself.



Fair, S.W., 2007. Alaska Native Art: Tradition, Innovation, Continuity. University of Alaska Press.
Lobb, A., 1990. Indian Baskets of the Pacific Northwest and Alaska: Of the Pacific Northwest and Alaska. Graphic Art Books

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Photos of me: G. Kramm
Other photos: N. Mölders

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