Story last updated at 8/27/2014 - 7:54 pm
For more than 50 years, Sitka artist Sarah Williams has been a Gwich'in Athabascan in Tlingit country - and while she's embraced Tlingit culture, marrying a Raven and being adopted as an Eagle, she's also maintained her own identity.
In the mid-1950s, Williams' school in Fort Yukon was overcrowded. So when she was just an elementary schooler, Williams and 50 others made the trip south, to Sitka.
"Fifty of us came down on the airplane in November," she said. "At that time it was already cold ... we were wearing big heavy parkas, and we came out in the Juneau airport, and it was really warm compared to Fort Yukon."
It wasn't an easy transition, especially for an elementary school student.
"It was really hard," she said. "I was homesick. But we stuck it out."
She and her schoolmates went home each summer and came back each fall.
Williams doesn't remember her mother, who passed away at a young age. Williams' grandmother raised her, and she remembers nights in Fort Yukon with her grandmother and her aunt, learning traditional Athabascan art without realizing it.
"At that time there was no TV. No phone. There was a radio only," she said.
Each night, her aunt and her grandmother would sit and do beadwork, making boots, gloves, and other items.
"I just sat there and watched them," she said. "I didn't know I was learning."
After Williams graduated from Mount Edgecumbe High School, she returned to Fort Yukon and put in applications for a job as a dental assistant. She got a call from Mount Edgecumbe Hospital soon afterward, so at the end of the summer, she returned to Sitka. Later, she met her husband, a Tlingit and a member of the Raven clan.
She worked for more than 40 years as a dental assistant and retired 10 years ago, but she still works on a contract basis in Kake, Sitka, Klawock, Hydaburg and other communities.
Williams' passion isn't her dental work, it's her art.
Williams is an accomplished bead artist; she also creates Tlingit and Haida regalia, carves, makes drums, and more.
She travels across the state for art shows. Recently, her work was on display in Juneau during Celebration. She'll have a booth at the Alaska Federation of Natives Convention this October, and at other markets around the state.
"Usually I do lots of winter things when I go up there, (to AFN) and it goes really fast," she said.
Her supplies can be very expensive; a tanned moose skin, she said, could cost $2,000. She also trades products for supplies, however, so people sometimes donate sea otter pelts and other necessary items.
Her biggest project this winter is a queen-sized land otter skin bedspread, with beaver trim all the way around. She also made three fully beaded 55-inch long by 4-inch wide baby straps. Much of her work, she creates on a commission basis.
When her two daughters, son, and granddaughter all decided one January to dance in Celebration, she got a six-month head start working on their regalia.
"My neighbor was good enough to help us out," she said. "We were there like 10 hours a day, and we don't even cook. ... I have to make four (sets of regalia.) What I did was I mixed it with Athabascan bead work. ... It took all that time. Six months to make four sets of regalia."
Williams and her children were still working on the regalia when they boarded the plane - and even when they waited in line to dance.
One of her more unusual experiences sharing her art was on board the cruise ship Oosterdam.
"They called me one time and told me they wanted me to work on the boat - do bead work," she said. "I just sit there for eight hours ... they put in a little table. People would go back and forth, and I would show my art work there."
One of the most memorable parts was the food and her accommodations.
"It was really good," she said of the food. "There's so much food there! You just choose healthy stuff. I try to eat healthy all the time. ... A guy comes and grabs my tray, asks where I want to sit, what I want to drink. Then he goes and gets tea for me."
Williams also gives talks and displays her work at the Sheldon Jackson Museum during the summer.
"All the tourists come to my desk and they talk about my artwork," she said. "They ask all kinds of crazy questions. Sometimes it's so funny that I can't laugh. I just have to sit there with a straight face."
One of the funniest questions: Who makes the hole in your beads?
"I told him the hole-makers," she said.
Williams also does lots of volunteer work and stays busy with her church, St. Peter's by the Sea. She's learning to sing hymns in Athabascan, she said.
Despite Williams' time away from Fort Yukon, she remains a fluent Athabascan speaker.
"There's no one there for me to talk to in my language in Sitka, so when I call people at home, I always talk to them in my language on the phone," she said.