Survival Tactics for Native Culture

In her new book, Beth Piatote uses beadworking as the thread that holds Native culture together.


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Photo by Kirsten Lara Getchell

When author and UC Berkeley professor Beth Piatote thinks of the audience for her new book of collected fiction, she imagines them at the beading table.

Piatote, who teaches and studies Native American literature at Cal and is Nez Perce from Chief Joseph’s Band, remembers watching her aunt, a lauded beadwork artist, at her work.

“I remember watching her and thinking I’ll never be as good as her,” Piatote said over coffee at the The Musical Offering cafe across from the UC campus. “But I think that what I do as a writer is similar to what she’s doing.”

“I’m trying to lay down each bead and make these patterns and these stories and letting each story be its own shape and its own pattern.”

Her book, aptly titled The Beadworkers, was published this month by local publishing house Counterpoint Press. It features Native American characters dealing with history, family, longing, and cultural legacy.

The collection is divided into four sections, the first titled in the language of Nez Perce and the last consisting of a completed dramatic play. Near the center of the book is the short story “Beading Lesson,” the first piece of creative writing Piatote published.

“The concept of the book comes down to that piece,” she said. “In all the pieces of the book, there are aspects of Native life that are very painful: violence and loss. The operating concept of the book, of the beadworker, is there is this core of Native culture that keeps going, where people are meeting each other and telling their stories and keeping their creativity going. And that keeps all of these things manageable — both in the book and in life.”

The dramatic work at the close of the collection is a retelling of the classic Greek drama Antigone, featuring Native American characters fighting over the state of ancestral remains. “It becomes a play of everyone basically agreeing on the importance of ancestral remains to Native people, but having different ideas on tactics,” Piatote said.

The original play’s Greek chorus has been re-imagined as a group of Native aunties who tell traditional Nez Perce stories. The work was presented on site at UC’s Hearst Museum of Anthropology last fall. The museum controversially contains more than 9,000 indigenous ancestral remains.

“Everyone had to be implicated in the space they were in,” Piatote said. The presentation, over three nights, sold out.

Although this is Piatote’s first book of creative fiction, her academic book, Domestic Subjects: Gender, Citizenship, and Law in Native American Literature, was published in 2013. That book looks at how Native literature represented the assimilation policies in the United States after the Indian Wars of the 19th century and early 20th century.

“I think the most important argument my book makes is that Indian Wars are wars on Indian families,” Piatote said. “I looked at the writing by indigenous writers … from the 1880s to 1930s, the time when children were taken way from their families to go to boarding school. There were all these policies to break down the reservations and break down families.”

“It was a very dark and difficult time,” she said. “One of the questions I have is, ‘How did people survive?’”

One answer is the arts: singing, drumming, and other cultural practices, including beadwork.

“I wanted to integrate Nez Perce aesthetics into the [fiction] pieces,” Piatote said. “I hope that people will somehow see that some of the aesthetics from the books come from these long cultural practices and things that we [indigenous peoples] think are beautiful and important.”

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