Tribal art comes under documentary lens

Work demonstrates resiliency of Columbia River plateau cultures

Ten thousand years after her ancestors did so, Pat Gold weaves baskets that reflect the culture of her people, members of the Wasco and Warm Springs tribes.

'Every basket tells a story,' says Gold, who uses techniques and designs that have been handed down through the generations.

Gold and five other plateau artists are profiled in 'Faithful to Continuance,' a documentary that celebrates the creativity and cultural resiliency of the Columbia River plateau people.

Defined as those Native Americans who live between the Cascade and Rocky Mountain ranges, the plateau people include the Nez Perce, Warm Springs, Umatilla and Yakama tribes.

The documentary is the work of Los Angeles-based independent filmmakers Penny Phillips and David Schneiderman, who specialize in creating videos about Native American culture.

Schneiderman says that making the films offers the couple a sort of spiritual respite from their 9-to-5 jobs.

'We're in the television industry in Hollywood; it's not very satisfying work,' he says dryly.

The hour-long documentary succeeds in quietly illustrating the importance of the artists' work, both from a personal and cultural standpoint. As they perform their craft on-camera, they discuss what it's like to be Native American artists producing ancient crafts in a modern world. In each case, the artists reveal an immense pride in their heritage, an emotion that fuels the desire to be a conduit for their tribes' culture something they've done even when it wasn't prudent to do so.

'As a child, I was punished for speaking my own language on the reservation,' says Elaine Timentwa Emerson, a basket maker and Colville tribe member. 'I make baskets now because I want people to know that we're still here.'

In addition to basketry, intricate beadwork, mixed-media sculpture and abstract printmaking are highlighted in the film, which is set to Native American music and the gentle, spoken-word poetry of Wasco tribal member Elizabeth Woody.

Historical insights also are interspersed throughout the film, creating a context for the role that crafts played in the ancient plateau culture. Salmon, for instance, was more than just a food source for the tribes; the fish is a recurring symbol of cultural identity throughout the millennia, resurfacing time and again in every tribal art form.

The increasing presence of white culture is also seen in the artwork, beginning with the Lewis and Clark expedition. The mingling of the two worlds is evident in a late-1800s tribal necklace that incorporated Russian beads and Chinese coins, and in Joe Fedderson's ironic basket designs. In what he calls his 'Urban Indian series,' the Colville tribe member substitutes tire tracks and brick patterns for traditional patterns.

Like several of the subjects profiled in 'Faithful to Continuance,' Maynard Lavadour is philosophical about the importance of art in maintaining a strong tribal heritage, particularly as the white culture encroached.

'My elders told me, 'Listen, pay attention, and put it in your heart; that way no one can take it from you,'' Lavadour says as he displays his remarkable beading skills. ''Then you must teach what you've learned; don't be stingy.''