Last month I visited Yosemite again. Spring is a wonderful time of year …early for tourists but not for wildflowers, blooming dogwood, or cascading waterfalls. This time I visited the Yosemite Indian Museum and walked through the replica village located behind the museum. The displays and interpretive boards tell of various native customs and crafts, but also announce the decline and disappearance of many of the customs and their practitioners.
Fortunately, inside the museum, Julia Parker is quietly preserving the basket making craft for all visitors. At age 85 she is the longest serving employee in Yosemite. As a Native American (Kashaya Pomo and Coast Miwok who married a Mono Lake Paiute) she learned her skills from the best basket makers of the past. Today she is the best: an artist, a teacher, and a preservationist.
Baskets were always important to the natives in California and came in all shapes and sizes depending on their use. We know that the indigenous peoples tended their land carefully to produce the sedge and deer grasses they needed to create fibers of the right shapes and lengths. They used fire as a catalyst for plant growth and to remove pests and debris.
The women in the tribes wove conical “burden baskets” for gathering and storage. They created flat-bottomed “cooking baskets” for preparing food. They wove flat “seed beater” and “winnowing baskets” and small gift baskets…all served a purpose in their society.
Native women became so skilled at making baskets that even at advanced ages, eyesight failing, they could create useful works of art.
Julia gives credit for the beauty and utility of her baskets to her plants and fibers. She gathers her raw materials in winter from local streambeds. Some favorites are willow and red bud. When she harvests, she takes care to say a prayer, ask “please” and say “thank you” to the earth. She takes only what she needs. Each fiber is stripped, dried and bundled in preparation for the work. The willow creates a light yellow background while red bud creates red-colored designs. If bracken fern is used, it creates black highlights. Designs are not pre-drawn, but are conceived in the artist’s head and materialize. Julia prefers designs with triangles and zigzags and she may add some sparkle on occasion.
Julia’s work can be viewed in Yosemite, in the Smithsonian, and in other museums around the world She is proud to have been selected to create a basket for Queen Elizabeth on her visit to Yosemite in 1983.
If you visit Yosemite in late September 2014, Julia will be giving a basket weaving class with her daughter and granddaughter. She will help you make your first basket and then, as Native American tradition dictates, she will instruct you to give your first basket away.