Beads Connect Woman To Past, Present



A pair of beaded moccasins her great-grandmother on her mother's side made for her great-grandfather were the extent of what Gwen Zissler knew about her Indian heritage, growing up in Montana, Arizona and Oregon.

"When I was born (in 1958), you just didn't talk about being Indian," she said.


Gwen Storybead Zissler

She was 34 when she began to research the roots she now holds with such respect.

Based on the pattern in the moccasins, she believes her roots are Tuscarora, one of the Iroquois tribes, but she cannot prove it.

"You can look back just so far, then you hit a wall," she said. "I understand and respect the blood quantum (the amount of Indian blood needed to be accepted for membership in a tribe) but I know what is in my heart.

"I don't want the memory of my grandmothers to die because my family was embarrassed or ashamed," she said. "I hear the grandmothers calling to me to keep their memories alive."

Learning to bead was a way of connecting with her heritage. An Indian woman in Salem, Ore. taught her a few stitches, but mostly she taught herself through books and trial and error.

A Lakota woman, Medicine Wolf White Eagle, gave her the name Storybead.

"I would share my dreams with her and she would explain them to me," Storybead said.

The creation of an Iroquois regalia was an early project. The regalia is a long dress with an underskirt that falls below the knees. The velvet cuffs and yoke are beaded with flowers as are the leggings and underskirt.

Storybead likes the tangible results of beading.

For the girl who grew up in a dozen foster homes and two girls' schools, beading is therapeutic.

She attended California State College in Sacramento, but readily admits she blew her education by using drugs.

She spent three years in prison and by the time she got out, Storybead thought, "I don't have to be like this. There are other choices. I can walk the good red road."

Her spiritual awakening gave her peace and a foundation to bring better things into her life.

Her husband of 13 years, Ken, is proud of the woman he married.

"She has made this over twice for me," he said, as he shows off his medicine bag.

Storybead's work has been featured in the Fire Mountain Gems catalog.

She won a first place, professional category ribbon for a medicine bag from the Oregon State Fair.

After 14 years of beading, she can make anything from doll pins -- each with its own personality -- to jewelry, to custom beadwork on clothing.

"There is an energy to my work," she said. "Because of that, it needs to be touched."

Even though the beads must be stitched methodically to create a pattern, "Beading allows me to step out of a structured way of thinking," she said.

A recent client wanted a necklace created around a piece of moldavite that had a face carved into it.

"I understand moldavite is a meteor," Storybead said. "I looked at that stone and heard in my mind, ‘From the stars I've come, back to the stars I'll go'."

So she set the cabachon inside a crescent moon, beaded around it with green seed beads then added stars hanging down. She used a herringbone stitch for the necklace.

"Beading has taught me patience," she said.

"By taking time and paying attention I can create something exquisite."

Not a fan of the heat, Storybead can be found at indoor craft shows. Some of her creations may be found at De-Ja-Vu Beauty Salon in Payson.


Name: Gwen Storybead Zissler

Occupation: People greeter

Employer: Wal-Mart

Age: 47

Family: Husband, Ken. And I have lots of friend's children who call me Aunt Gwen, so that makes me happy.

Personal motto: We all come from the same Creator -- stones, birds, creepy crawlies, trees, animals. So, we are all family.

Inspiration: Life.

Greatest feat: Myself. I have been a lot of work.

Favorite hobby or leisure activity: Playing my saxophone that I started to learn at age 43.

Three words that describe me best are: Open minded, compassionate, kind.

I don't want to brag, but ... I created "Dark Side of the Moon," a necklace, bracelet and earring set created in half black, half blue beads. It won third place in a Fire Mountain Gems contest. Their catalog goes all over the world.

The person in history I'd most like to meet is: The Peacemaker who brought the six Iroquois tribes together in the Confederation.

Luxury defined: Indoor swimming pool and jacuzzi.

Dream vacation spot: Ireland. (The other half of my heritage.)

Why Payson? My husband and I drove through the area and it reminded us of Oregon. We decided if we could find work we would stay. Plus, the people were so welcoming.

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