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UCLA student celebrates Indigenous heritage through handmade beadwork business

Second-year microbiology, immunology and molecular genetics student Cheyenne Faulkner learned beading at the beginning of the pandemic as a way to pass time. Crafting pieces which meld traditional colors with modern items, she said her biggest motivation for creating is to connect back to her heritage. (Courtesy of Cheyenne Faulkner)

By Austin Nguyen

Nov. 25, 2021 10:50 p.m.

Cheyenne Faulkner is taking life one bead at a time.

After sharing her beadwork on social media, the second-year microbiology, immunology and molecular genetics student said she transitioned from having an Etsy shop – her original means of selling items – to managing her own business, Beads By Chey Designs. Faulkner said she learned how to bead at the beginning of the pandemic through books and YouTube tutorials as a way to fill up free time. Despite the popularity she has gained, she said the connection that beadwork has to her heritage remains the main drive behind why she continues her craft.

“I really wanted to be able to live my culture on a daily basis,” Faulkner said. “It’s a way that I can connect with my culture outside of going to ceremony or going to powwow.”

When she first started beading, Faulkner said she had the financial support of her family. Her parents bought her supplies and helped pick out business cards for her. However, as her customer base grew from TikTok and she gained more experience, Faulkner said she learned to manage her business more independently, from sales tracking to online payment methods. She also expanded to selling in person and in stores, she said, obtaining booths at events such as Vista Farmers Market and Dancing Bear Indian Trader.

(Courtesy of Cheyenne Faulkner)
Faulkner said she highlights her heritage through the colors in her designs, such as black, yellow, red and white, which are the hues of the Lumbee Tribe's medicine wheel. (Courtesy of Cheyenne Faulkner)

[Related: Bruin expresses artistry through boutique, nail art business]

For each piece of beadwork, Faulkner said her heritage comes through in the colors and design. The Lumbee Tribe, which Faulkner said her mom is a part of, uses red, black, yellow and white as medicine wheel colors, which are associated with health and healing, that Faulkner herself also incorporates into her work. Another recurring color in her beadwork is turquoise, she said, because of its popularity within native communities at large. Depending on the seal of a given tribe, its representative animal might also be incorporated into the design, Faulkner said.

Since her craft is rooted in native culture, Faulkner said she often receives questions about cultural appropriation and who can wear beadwork. The answer to this varies from person to person, but Faulkner said anyone can wear beadwork – so long as they wear it appropriately and recognize the history behind it. Beadwork is more than a product and trend, and she said she appreciates it when customers take the time to ask her questions about the significance behind her craft.

“(Cultural appropriation) is not about what the item is,” Faulkner said. “It’s about what the item means and how that person is going to portray that item to another person.”

One of Faulkner’s mutuals on social media, Cheyenne Sparks, said she first found Faulkner’s work through TikTok. As a beader herself, one of the qualities that Sparks said sets Faulkner apart is how she incorporates traditional native elements, such as medicine wheel colors, into nontraditional objects, such as hoop earrings. The two were in similar beading Facebook groups, and Sparks said they often met over the internet to exchange business and stitching advice, such as how to bead feathers through the peyote stitch.

As another student beader, Desirae Barragan said seeing Faulkner’s success inspires both her and her own business. The third-year American Indian studies and human biology and society student said she and Faulkner started beading around the same time, running color combinations past each other and selling jewelry together. Though Faulkner’s social media presence has increased, Barragan said Faulkner still provides help to individuals who are considering starting their own businesses in ways such as through giving social media shoutouts.

(Courtesy of Cheyenne Faulkner)
Through shoutouts on her social media and the creation of beading tutorials, Faulkner helps people grow their own businesses and learn more about the process and cultural value behind beading. (Courtesy of Cheyenne Faulkner)

[Related: Student launches virtual jewelry store with support from other small businesses]

Faulkner also makes stitching tutorials, which Barragan said makes beadwork more accessible for anyone interested in learning. While beadwork is often prevalent in native communities as a tradition, Barragan said Faulkner’s prominence has enabled nonnative communities to learn more about the process of beadwork and the cultural value behind it. For Faulkner, tutorials are also a way of preserving the craft and tricks of beadwork for future generations.

“One day, the elders aren’t going to be here to teach (beadwork), and we want to make sure that we’re able to teach our youth,” Faulkner said.

Looking ahead, Faulkner said she hopes to expand her beadwork to encompass sacred items. Her current work focuses on earrings and lanyards, but Faulkner said she also wants to expand her beadwork to medicine bags, moccasins and regalia – clothing worn during traditional dances. Despite her TikTok virality, Faulkner said she wants to use her success to continue putting her heritage first.

“I bead for my culture,” Faulkner said.

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Austin Nguyen
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