Playing sports outside and crafting with her mother inside kept Donna Pulliam and other local children busy in the Interior Alaska town of Tok. Generations lived without television or local radio. Inside, Pulliam made tassels for her mother’s beaded crafts and mukluks while the family listened to Air Force radio. Income was scarce in Tok and things were expensive.
“Money was tight so we did what we could,” Pulliam said.
Her mother’s sewing and beading helped the family get the few things they needed. One school outfit a year might be ordered from the Sears or Spiegel catalog. One. Take care of what you have.
It was around her junior high years that Pulliam started beading on her own. It eventually became her source of income.
“I beaded while I was in college and sold earrings and things. I did pretty well. They seemed to fit right in with the sixties and seventies,” she said.
After a short course in Alaska Native footwear offered by the Alaska Council of the Arts and her mother in the mid-1960s, Pulliam added moccasins and mukluks to her stock of traditional artwork. She started doing craft shows around Alaska with her mother and auntie.
“I hired my mother who was working for the Smithsonian creating Alaska Native beadwork at the time,” she recalled.
Growing up in the Doyon/Tanacross region kept her in tune with her Athabascan traditions. Styles and tools have changed over the decades. The bone and hide decorations used in the past have been replaced with small, colorful beads. Store bought needles are easier to come by.
“I understand we have to hold on to tradition, but we need to be open to moving forward,” Pulliam noted.
She now works with a combination of traditional and modern materials to create more practical moccasins for professionals and those who want more indoor support.
Tradition took its own course in the Pulliam home. Pulliam’s children started helping with the beading and tassels. It became family time. She and her husband, Bob Pulliam, took in dozens of foster children over the years, adopting four. Beading and sewing became part of the nurturing. The children would help with small tasks. Her craft kept the Alaska Native traditions alive in the children’s lives.
The television stayed off.
Her materials are authentic – beaver and Alaska Native tanned moose hide. The tanned moose hide is better for the dryer Interior climate. These days she gets the moose hide from Canada.
“No one makes it in Alaska anymore,” she said.
Pulliam uses the two needle beading method. She likes to emulate her mother’s traditional Athabascan designs of the wild rose and the forget-me-not. The bright colors and solid pattern adorn moose hide moccasins and beaded hairpieces on her table in the kitchen.
Sewing and beading came to an abrupt halt about fourteen years ago. She and Bob were headed to their cabin near Paxson when she felt the right side of her face go numb. Bob turned around and drove back to Anchorage. It was a stroke. Afterward, her hands and arms were basically useless for beading.
“And I couldn’t do algebra anymore,” she laughed in retrospect. “That really bothered me that it affected that part of my brain. I was a good math student.”
With some therapy and a desire to keep moving, she started to bead again. It was slow and she would have to support her arms with her torso to get them in position.
“I tried to do something constructive every day,” she said.
Pulliam says beading was better than therapy and she saw her craft as her means to keep moving in her later years. She plans to sew “until my arms give out.”
Reflecting on her recovery, Pulliam said, “Our sewing can be a healing method to get through tough things.”
The Pulliams have had their share of tough times. A year before the stroke, they lost one of their sons in a tragic car accident.
Now, in her home in Chugiak, Pulliam works on her craft quietly, peacefully.
“I just sit and sew,” she said.
She rarely turns on the television, but sometimes finds a YouTube video that teaches her something new.
Her business has slowed to a more manageable pace. She sells her inventory at AFN every year and at the Alaska Native arts booth in the Sears Mall at Christmas. She still sells at the Alaska Native Medical Center where she has for over 30 years. A percentage of those sales go to scholarships and other programs for children.
Her 11-year-old granddaughter saw her Nana making a living from her crafts and decided she wanted in. She now makes ice worms from Pulliam’s extra fur, mostly rabbit and beaver.
“She’s done pretty well,” said Pulliam, running her finger over one of the rabbit fur worms. It arches its back in response. “When she wants something, she earns money for it.” She points to an older iPad on the kitchen counter. “That’s her latest purchase.”
With AFN and the holidays behind her, Pulliam works on custom orders she picked up at the shows. She’ll slowly increase her inventory over the year, working at home in Chugiak or at their cabin. She’ll be ready. She has her routine.
“I try to do something productive every day,” she says. “It’s good for me.”
Editor’s Note: Gretchen Wehmhoff is a member of the ECHO News team and a former journalism instructor at Chugiak High School.