Here’s a holiday book recommendation—a gift to yourself and then to pass on to others: The Beadworkers, by Beth Piatote.
|Cover art is beadwork
by artist Marcus Amerman
I got an early copy weeks ago, and sped through the poems and stories quickly, but for some reason stopped at the play that ends the collection. This morning I read it in a sitting, and wondered why I had left it so long.
“neti’telwit / human beings” gathers the stories of Indian Wars, of legal and physical mistreatment of Indians, loss and recapture of language; competing notions of getting along in the American world and hanging onto traditions and meanings passed on by elders; the interrelationships of museum and tribal holdings, family and communal pasts. And it weaves and works the script—present and past, now and hereafter—with the loom built in Antigone, by the Greek tragedian Sophocles. It’s a tour de force that holds up the tragedies, disappointments, complexities and the hopes of Indian America, then turns them deftly for our consideration–and importantly allows us, the readers, no easy answers.
Beth Piatote came to Fishtrap almost 20 years ago. We honored Indians that year, calling it “Circling Back.” One of the guests was Mark Trahant, Shoshone-Bannock journalist from Idaho with a long history of work for tribal and mainstream newspapers. He brought Beth along—my recollection is that their history went back to southern Idaho, where Beth grew up.
She was working on a multi-generational novel at the time, and teaching at the University of Oregon in journalism and, maybe, Indian studies. We loved her writing, and invited her to be a writer in residence at our local schools. She did, and we loved her more. But then she went back and went on with her life, almost out of our reach and thoughts.
But she came back. Somehow a couple of years ago I found her teaching and writing at UC Berkeley. She was learning the Nez Perce language and making contact with Nez Perce elders at Nespelem, where she was enrolled, but had not grown up. A short time after that she told me how she had brought Nez Perce language elders from Nespelem, Lapwai, and Umatilla to Berkeley, where they met with Haruo Aoki, compiler of the acknowledged Nez Perce-English dictionary.
This summer, as we readied Nez Perce artist Doug Hyde’s sculpture for the Josephy Center courtyard, I reached out to Beth and those language elders. Beth brought Aoki himself into the conversation, and together they named the Doug Hyde sculpture. They named it ‘etweyé·wise—“I return from a hard journey.”
Beth came back to Fishtrap this summer to read and teach, and struck a new cohort of Fishtrap faculty and attendees as she had struck us those years ago. (She’s already invited back for this summer.)
And then The Beadworkers came in the mail.
By the way, don’t skip the poems and stories on the way to neti’telwit / human beings.