A Woman's Beadwork Is Never Done. Sophia Lincoln's Powerful Legacy

The Art Of Everyday Life In Alaska  These lusciously beaded mittens (below), on display at the Smithsonian's Museum of the American Indi...

The Art Of Everyday Life In Alaska 

These lusciously beaded mittens (below), on display at the Smithsonian's Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C., were chosen by the museum to represent the art & culture of the Athabascans of Interior Alaska to the outside world. 

The mittens were made by Leah Roberts, who lived in the Yukon Koyukuk part of Alaska's isolated river country. She was born in 1911, and died in 1990.

Life in Alaskan cabins can be tough on things. During these mitts' lifetime in the village, voles, moths or other small creatures had started gnawing away at the fur. 

The DC museum staff felt that the mitts had become ragged; they were not perfect, and had to be fixed up before others saw them. So they went to work, and, using "faux fur" patched them up along the wrist. 

Beaded mittens by Leah Roberts. (Photo, Country Journal, 2013) 

The museum presentation of these mittens – icons of Athabascan village life – is stunning. They're displayed in a recessed nook, with a dramatic black background and soft glowing lighting that sets off the now-perfect rim of fake fur. They reveal Leah Robert's original and extraordinary beadwork in a beautiful way. 

These are lovely mittens, but the fact that they are at the  Smithsonian Museum is just a fluke. They could as easily be in a local rural store in Alaska, for sale. Or, more likely, they could be in somebody's house, in a drawer or trunk, waiting to be used at a funeral potlatch. 

Nobody Alaskan has ever seen mittens glowing like this in their own homes. But many have seen wonderful mittens made by their grandmas and aunties, in more mundane circumstances.  

Mittens are "art." But they're functional, too. And, ultimately, Leah Robert's mittens earned their scars and gnawed fur, through real life and use. There's no need to make a worn thing whole again. Honest use is something to be proud of. 

Lisa Yoshimoto of Copper Center (it's her married name; she's actually Ahtna Athabascan) has her own Copper Valley museum-type display of beaded artwork made by a revered elder, too.  

Lisa's collection is nothing like the Smithsonian's – which is a single piece of work in refurbished and perfect condition.

Yet, there are parallels. Lisa's collection comes from the same, everyday real Alaskan place that Leah Robert's mitts came from: village life.

Lisa's Copper Valley collection is also from an Alaskan environment where small critters come into the cabin and poke around, looking for something tasty to chew on. (Something, maybe, like Grandma's elaborately beaded slippers or mittens.)

Lisa Yoshimoto, years ago, with her display in Copper Center. (Photo, Country.Journal) 

Lisa's array of moose hide and beadwork is crammed with many lovingly fashioned, used and even eventually replaced items. 

And they're all made by her grandmother, Sophia Lincoln, of Copper Center.

There are beaded hair decorations, bands for carrying babies, earrings and a wide range of footgear and mitts, some adorned with heavy beadwork. 

Some pieces of work are made in a very simple manner, out of mattress ticking. Very old mattress ticking. 

As Lisa explains about the ticking, it's from World War II:   

"Those are remnants from the army days when the army was coming through and left all their supplies – mattresses and army blankets here." 

WWII Army Mattress Ticking. (Photo, Country Journal) 

Sophia Lincoln carefully made these things for herself and her  family members, providing them with the basic things they required for daily living. Her husband, Louie Lincoln, and Lisa's uncles and aunts all received gear, which they used and kept and then laid aside, to be found later. 

 "They all lived there," Lisa said. The handmade things Sophia Lincoln's family had once used every day wore out, and began to pile up. 

When the mitts, slippers and boots served their purpose, they were placed somewhere in a corner or shed – just like old tennis sneakers, or once-beloved baseball caps that aren't serviceable anymore. 

You can see how authentic and heavily-used these slippers were; Sophia Lincoln's foot shape is clearly visible in the everyday wear of her shoes. 

Sophia Lincoln died in 1995 at the age of 93. With her husband, Louis Lincoln, they had eight children.

When Sophia Lincoln passed away, you could see she hadn't finished her mission. "Under her bed were about 500 remnants," said Lisa Yoshimoto. "They would make patterns with paper bags."

Lisa began to gather it all up. There was all kinds of stuff: beaded things, a stove, a Russian samovar from the old days, snowshoes, a bunch of traps, piles of skins to tan, Russian Orthodox icons and articles from the abandoned and then torn-down church next door, potlatch items...

Wanting to share these things with others, years ago, Lisa Yoshimoto assembled everything together and put it all on display at a small cabin near the old Copper River Cash, where she ran a  store for awhile. Then, she moved them to Meiers Lake Roadhouse and put them on display there. 

Sophia Lincoln (Photo, Lisa Yoshimoto) 

Sophia Lincoln's large assemblage of culturally-influenced clothing is a far more sophisticated and revealing body of work about Native Alaskan life than many people can ever guess. Why? Because it's all real, and there's so much of it. It tells a complete story of a single Ahtna woman, and her values, skills and tenacity. 

Every one of these worn-down one-of-a-pair of slippers tells a tale of living with beauty and dignity in the wilds of Alaska, under the harshest possible conditions anywhere on earth. Even the tiny little slippers she made and beaded, for the smallest of children, tell something about village life. 

It's all about family. There's a highly decorated baby-carrying strap. What does it reveal? It shows that, even in the most humble and ordinary of Ahtna households, the birth of a child was a time for rejoicing. 

The baby was safeguarded while traveling through the black spruce forests on the mother's back. The baby strap was a lovingly crafted, functional, beautifully artistic object. But it was also used. 

Lisa came back to Copper Center as a child. 

Now her vision is to somehow pay back her now-gone grandma, and to safeguard and share the importance of the things Sophia Lincoln treasured – from a time that will never return.

This is a story by the Copper River Country Journal celebrating Native Heritage Month, 2021. It's for everyone in the Copper Valley, but especially for members of the Lincoln family. 

Sophia Lincoln's work as displayed at Meiers Lake Roadhouse. (Country Journal photo) 


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