Beads are easier to connect than family

In Beth Piatote’s first short-story collection, a niece learns beading and other lessons.


he first thing you do is, lay down all your hanks, like this, so the colors go from light to dark, like a rainbow. I’ll start you out with something real easy, like I do with those kids over at the school, over at Cay-Uma-Wa.

How about — you want to make some earrings for your mama? Yeah, I think she would like that.

Hey niece, you remind me of those kids. That’s good! That’s good to be thinking of your mama.

You go ahead and pick some colors you think she would like. Maybe three or four is all, and you need to pick some of these bugle beads.

Yeah, that’s good, except you got too many dark colors.

You like dark colors. Every time I see you you’re wearin’ something dark. Not me. I like to wear red and yellow, so people know I’m around and don’t try talkin’ about me behind my back, aay?

The thing is, you got to use some light colors, because you’re makin’ these for your mama, right, and she has dark hair, and you want ’em to stand out, and if they’re all dark colors, you can’t see the pattern.

I got some thread for you, and this beeswax. You cut the thread about this long, a little longer than your arm, but you don’t want it too long or it will tangle up or get real weak. You run it through the beeswax, like this, until it’s just about straight. It makes it strong and that way it don’t tangle so much.

Nani Chacon for High Country News

You keep all this in your box now. I got this for you to take home with you, back to college, so you can keep doin’ your beadwork.

How do you like it over there at the university? You know your cousin Rae is just about gettin’ her degree. She just has her practicum, then she’ll be done. I think her boyfriend don’t like her being in school though, and that’s slowing her down. It’s probably a good thing you don’t have a boyfriend right now. They can really make a lot of trouble for you, and slow you down on things you got to do.

Now you gotta watch this part. This is how you make the knot. You make a circle like this, then you wrap the thread around the needle three times, see? You see how my hands are? If you forget later, you just remember how my hands are, just like this, and remember you have to make a circle, OK? Then you pull the needle through all the way to the end — good — and clip off the little tail.

I’ll show you these real easy earrings, the same thing I always start those men at the jail with. You know I go over there and give them beading lessons.

You should see how artistic some of them are. They work real hard, and some of them are good at beadwork.

I guess they got a lot of time to do it, but it’s hard, it’s hard to do real good beadwork.

You got to go slow and pay attention.

I know this one man, William, he would be an artist if he wasn’t in jail. I’ll show you, he gave me a drawing he did of an eagle. It could be a photograph, except you can tell it’s just pencil. But it’s good, you would like it. There’s a couple of other Indian prisoners — I guess we’re supposed to call them inmates, but I always call them prisoners — and sometimes I make designs for them for their beadwork from what they draw. The thing is, they don’t get many colors to work with.

They like the beadwork, though. They always got something to give their girlfriends when they come visit, or their mothers and aunties.

You have to hide the knot in the bead, see, like this, and that’s why you got to be careful not to make the knot too big.

Maybe next time you come they will be having a powwow at the prison and you can meet my students over there and they can show you their beadwork. I think they always have a powwow around November, around Veterans Day. Your cousin Carlisle and his family come over from Montana last time, and the only thing is, you got to go real early because it takes a long time to get all your things through security. They have to check all your regalia and last time they almost wouldn’t let Carlisle take his staff in because they said it was too dangerous or something.

What’s that? Oh, that’s all right. Just make it the same way on the other one and everyone will think you did it that way on purpose.

Your mama is really going to like those earrings. I think sometimes she wishes she learnt to bead, but she didn’t want to when she was little. She was the youngest, so I think she was a little spoiled but don’t tell her I said that. She didn’t have to do things she didn’t want to, she didn’t even have to go to boarding school. I think she would have liked it. It wasn’t bad for me at that school. Those nuns were good to me; they doted on me. I was their pet. I think your mama missed out on something, not going to St. Andrew’s, because that’s when you get real close with other Indians.

I like that blue. I think I’m goin’ to make you a wing dress that color.

I think you’ll look good when you’re ready to dance. Once you get going on your beadwork I’ll get you started on your moccasins, and you know your cousin Woody is making you a belt and I know this lady who can make you a cornhusk bag. You’re goin’ to look just like your mama did when she was young, except I think she was younger than you the last time she put on beadwork.

I used to wonder if you would look like your dad, but now that you’re grown you sure took after her. I look at you and I think my sister, she must have some strong blood.

Hey, you’re doin’ real good there, niece. I think you got “the gift” — good eyesight! You know, you always got to be workin’ on something, because people are always needing things for weddin’s and memorials and going out the first time, got to get their outfits together. Most everything I make I give away, but people pay me to make special things. And they are always askin’ for my work at the gift shop. My beadwork has got me through some hard times, some years of livin’ skinny.

You got to watch out for some people, though. Most people aren’t like this; most people are real bighearted. But some people, when they buy your beadwork, they think it should last forever. Somebody’s car breaks down, he knows he got to take it to the shop, pay someone to get it goin’ again. But not with beadwork — not with something an Indian made. No, they bring it back 10 years later and they want you to fix it for free! They think because an Indian makes it, it’s got to last forever. Just think if the Indians did that with all the things the government made for us. Hey, you got to fix it for free!

You done with that already? Let me show you how you finish.

You pull the thread through this line, see, then clip it, then the bead covers it up. That’s nice.

That’s good. I’m proud of you, niece.

I think your mama is really goin’ to like these earrings, and maybe she’ll come and ask you to teach her how you do it. You think she’ll ever want to do beadwork? Maybe she’ll come and ask me, aay?

What do you think of that? You think your mama would ever want to learn something from her big sister? I got a lot of students. There’s a lady who just called me the other day, she works at the health clinic, and she’s older than you and she wants to learn how. I said sure I’ll teach her. I teach anyone who wants to learn. I just keep thinkin’ if I stay around long enough, everyone’s goin’ to come back and ask me, even your mama. 

The Beadworkers
Beth Piatote
208 pages, hardcover: $23
Counterpoint Press, 2019.

Copyright © 2019 by Beth Piatote, from The Beadworkers. Excerpted by permission of Counterpoint Press.

Beth Piatote is a Nez Perce writer and associate professor of Native American Studies at UC Berkeley.

Email HCN at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor


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