Spirit in Glass Celebrates the Spectacular Beadwork of the Columbia River Plateau People

by Mike Martz on September 25, 2014

Lincoln, Neb.: Spirit in Glass: Plateau Native Beadwork provides a rare opportunity to experience Plateau culture through the eyes and hearts of the artists themselves. Narrated by Nez Perce storyteller Nakia Williamson, the film focuses on bead artists from the Nez Perce, Umatilla, Warm Springs, and Yakama Reservations. The talented individuals behind this spectacular beadwork share their history, motivation, and the key role that beadwork plays in binding their culture together. This half-hour documentary from Mimbres Fever Productions and Vision Maker Media will air on Public Television stations nationwide with broadcast rights beginning October 24.

Truly an American story, the very essence of this art form and its story of survival is indeed a glimpse at the heartfelt tradition of a people. The documentary was filmed throughout the culturally rich northwest Plateau and mid-Columbia River regions with the mission of celebrating the Plateau People while respecting the vital role that their adaptability has played in their cultural diversity and maintaining of a tradition.

The beadwork tradition began to flourish during the restrictive times of the Reservation Period. Deeply rooted in the basketry traditions, skilled artists moved from geometric basket designs to floral motifs.

“Creativity and individuality is a shared Plateau cultural value. It is expressed in the woven flat bags and other artistic traditions,” commented Penny Phillips, director and producer of the film.

Adventurers, traders, and settlers began traveling through the area in the 1840s, bringing small glass beads in a variety of colors to trade for Native goods. Grandmothers started using beads as a medium to create and offer gifts to family members and trading partners, reinforcing traditional values while developing a new, artistic tradition. Beadwork became a way to show identity and to maintain culture.

One of the more memorable aspects of beadwork is the uniqueness of each beaded piece. For each beadwork creation holds special meaning for the person who made it and for the person for whom it was made.

“In the Indian way, when you give that special piece, it’s a way to heal your heart,” shared Rose Scott, a bead artist from the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs.

Pictorial beadwork is unique to the area. Since this style of beadwork started in a time of catastrophic upheaval, it serves as a metaphor for the vibrancy and survival of the Native culture. In order to keep their culture alive, the elders adapted by beading individual images and stories. And today, many artists have made a particular beadwork creation their specialty–as a contribution to their generation.

Spirit in Glass: Plateau Native Beadwork–which received major funding from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) and Vision Maker Media–is an offering of the National Educational Telecommunications Association (NETA). This half-hour documentary will be available to public television stations nationwide on Friday, October 24, 2014. This program is suggested for scheduling for Native American Heritage Month. For viewing information in your area, please visitwww.visionmakermedia.org/watch.

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