‘Originally I learned to bead and sew from my grandmas at home and one of my aunts,” Blanche Sam said. “My aunt showed me how to make the earrings.” Now as an adult, Sam runs Brilliant Beads by Blanche out of her Fairbanks home, where she draws on Athabascan traditions to design earrings that reflect Alaska’s natural beauty. “I’m selling my beadwork to pay my bills.”

Born and raised in the village of Hughes along the Koyukuk River, Sam is Koyukon Athabascan and Inupiaq. She said homes in Hughes were filled with beads, skins, furs, and other items used for making clothing that was both practical and fashionable. “It’s something that we grew up around,” she said. “It’s engrained in our culture.”

“Alaska Natives have always taken a lot of pride in how they dress and the jewelry that they wear,” Sam said. “If you look at the older photos of Athabascans, you can see the detail work in their parkas, and everything that they put into their hair, into their gloves. It’s always been a big part of the culture. It’s taking pride in how we look and what we wear.”

Those images would inspire her as an adult, but first she got sidelined with college and work. Sam came to Fairbanks to attend the University of Alaska Fairbanks (UAF) in 1998, and moved to town full-time in 2001. She earned an associate’s degrees in professional piloting and applied accounting, and for many years worked in a bank. While she thrived in the workplace, she said, it wasn’t fulfilling to her.

It was at the 2016 Alaska Federation of Natives Convention in Fairbanks that she had the epiphany that led to her career change. She said it hit while she was looking for earrings at the vendors’ tables. “There were a lot of options, but there was nothing that was my style,” she recalled. “So I started trying to make some. And as I made more, I was posting on my social media, and people started asking to buy them.”

What started as a hobby quickly snowballed. Within a year she had settled on the business name and was selling her earrings well beyond Fairbanks. She credits social media with helping her find customers. “I created my Facebook page, my Instagram, and changed my Twitter from a personal page to where I sold earrings. Twitter is where I get a lot of my sales from, actually.”

As she started to create her earrings, she looked to the past for her prototypes. “Dentalium shells were highly traded in my culture,” she said. “And since contact with settlers, beading has been big.”

Sam uses dentalium shells extensively in her work, then adds beads to create color schemes that reflect our surroundings. “A lot of my focus is on color,” she explained. One of the most eye catching designs captures the aurora, with purple beads at the top, then transitioning to green below, followed by the white shells, and then purple again at the bottom, to match the top. She’s done similar work with fall colors and other tones that are widely seen in Interior Alaska. “I started with smaller earrings,” she said. “They’ve gotten bigger and more fabulous, is how I feel about them.”

Sam kept her job until the end of 2020, then quit to devote her time to her daughter, her business, and returned to UAF, where she is enrolled in the art department. “Last year I started reading this book called ‘Dying To Be Me,’ by this lady named Anita Moorjani,” Sam said. “I’ve been reading all these inspirational and motivational books for the last two years. Then I found her book and I read it. It’s about this lady who had a near-death experience, and she was talking to her dad, and her dad said, ‘I want you to go back to your life, and live your life fearlessly and stay true to yourself.’ I read that book last year, around September or October.” After finishing the book, she knew she needed to pursue her dreams. “I decided then.”

Since she had completed basic graduation requirements when she earned her associate’s degrees, she’s been able to devote all of her school time to art classes. She’s learning new skills, and it’s likely they will soon be reflected in her creations. She’s already incorporating additional items into her earrings. “I’ve used salmon leather. I’ve used seal fur.”

She’s also expanding into metal. “I really loved my metalsmithing class because we do a lot of jewelry. This semester I’m taking metalsmithing again,” she said. “I’m also taking Alaska Native Arts. I really like that class. We’re actually beading this week. And I’m learning carving, which is challenging and exciting.”

“I want a larger spotlight on indigenous jewelry,” she added. “What we have to offer for fashion. Because I think it’s beautiful.”

To that end, her Twitter account has been the place where customers connect with her, both through sales and through personal interactions. She thinks her success in sales on that platform is “because I’m not only doing sales on Twitter, I’m sharing my personal life.” This gives her customers a sense of who they are buying from. She’s shared family accomplishments and losses, her daughter’s growth, her college experience, and more. “It’s a place that I’ve been able to be transparent with the customers, and I think that they connect to that and appreciate that.”

Thanks to social media, she now ships earrings across the United States, Canada, and even Europe. “I’d say 75% of my sales are out of state,” she said.

Along with being a full time businesswoman, and full time student, Sam is also a full time mom to her daughter, who is growing up watching her mother carry on and expand upon a tradition that runs in their history. “I really hope that this is a legacy that I can leave for her,” Sam concluded.

Brilliant Beads by Blanche can be found online at https://www.brilliantbeadsbyblanche.com/, on Twitter at https://twitter.com/hughesblues_80, and on other social media sites linked from her website. Blanche Sam donates 10% of all profits to the Fairbanks Street Outreach Program and the food bank. David James is a freelance writer who lives in Fairbanks. Creating Alaska is an ongoing series documenting the lives of artists and creators in Fairbanks. Feedback and suggestions for future interviews can be emailed to nobugsinak@gmail.com.

Brilliant Beads by Blanche can be found online at https://www.brilliantbeadsbyblanche.com/, on Twitter at https://twitter.com/hughesblues_80, and on other social media sites linked from her website. Blanche Sam donates 10% of all profits to the Fairbanks Street Outreach Program and the food bank.

David James is a freelance writer who lives in Fairbanks. Creating Alaska is an ongoing series documenting the lives of artists and creators in Fairbanks. Feedback and suggestions for future interviews can be emailed to nobugsinak@gmail.com.

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