Julia Parker

Kashia Pomo basketmaker

courtesy of the artist


Julia Parker has spent most of her years living and working in Yosemite Village in California.  Although she was born in her native Pomo territory, her early teachers were elder Indian traditionalists and basketweavers of the Sierra Miwok and Mono Lake Paiute people.  After her mother's death when Julia was five, she and her siblings were placed in a foster home and later sent to Stewart Indian School near Carson City, NV.  There she met her husband to be, Ralph Parker, and in 1948 they married and moved back to the Yosemite area.  Ralph was employed by the National Park Service and Julia worked as a housekeeper for the Yosemite Park and Curry Company.  In 1960, Park naturalist Douglas Hubbard wanted to revive demonstrations of Indian basketweaving at the Yosemite Museum and Julia volunteered.  With master elders as her teachers, most significantly Ralph's mother, Julia soon was demonstrating basketweaving in the park.  She also revived the practice of making acorn meal and mush, which in the traditional way uses a basket for the cooking process.  Julia's work has been featured at the National Museum of the American Indian, the Heard Museum, and the National Museum of Natural History.  In 1983 when Queen Elizabeth II visited Yosemite, Julia gave her one of her baskets and today it is in the Queen's Museum in Windsor Castle.  Julia has been a central figure in the organization and ongoing activities of the California Indian Basketweavers Association.

Interview with Julia Parker

NEA: First of all, I want to congratulate you on your award. Tell me how you felt when you heard the news.

MS. PARKER: When I got the phone call, I really didn't understand. After I began to talk to people, found it on the computer, and got information from my daughter about it, I was just floored to think that my name would have come up. I was really surprised and overwhelmed and quite honored to be able to represent my people. Not just the native people in my tribe, but all the people who have helped me through the years in the Park Service.

NEA: Tell me about your background and how you got involved with basket weaving.

MS. PARKER: I lived with my real people until I was about six years old and was orphaned at the age of seven. From seven until 12, I was in a foster home, a first generation German home. The lady wanted to take care of all five of us, my brothers and sisters and me. She took care of us and reared us really well, taught us about everyday things and church and the farm and all that. And she always told me, "Don't forget that you're a little Indian girl. Always remember that."

When I was 12 or so, she couldn't take care of us anymore. She said, "You know Julia, you have to stay together. I want to make sure that you stay with your brothers and sisters because that's the only family you're gonna have." She went to the probation officer and said, "I want you to keep these five little Indian children together." She always called us her five little Indians, which I didn't mind -- I knew what my tribe was but didn't really know what an "Indian" was. I never thought about it, you know. They were going to put us in an orphanage and separate us, but she insisted we be kept together. So they found this nice Indian school in Stewart, Nevada. We went on the train from Oakland clear to Carson to Reno, Nevada. The superintendent of the schools met us in Reno and we all crawled into his car and he drove us from Reno to Stewart. The matrons from the dorms were there to meet us. My two brothers, who were younger than I, were taken to the small boys building. My little baby sister was put in a small girls building. My other sister was put in a middle girl's school. I was put in a big girl's dormitory. We were separated but we could see each other, and life went on.

At the Indian school they said "Don't be Indian now, don't do Indian things. We have to educate you so that you will be able to take care of yourself when you leave school." At that time we didn't have to go to school after the age of 16. So I stayed until I was 16. During that time I met Ralph [Ralph Parker, her husband], a full-blooded Indian, and we became real good friends. I met him at a basketball game -- I was a cheerleader, and we both marched in an Indian band. When school ended, I had to find work. I had become real good friends with all these kids from Yosemite National Park, the Miwok-Paiute people, I said, "You know, I need to find work" and they said, "Julia, come to Yosemite, says there's lots of work up there." So I got my application in, the first application I ever filled out and sent it in and I got a job working in a laundry.

So right after school, I went with the kids on the bus to Sacramento and then to Yosemite. Now, I had no idea what Yosemite was about, and I was quite anxious to see where I was going. We traveled along and then we stopped at a place, and I heard this water coming down, so I thought "Oh, that sounds good, the water." It was dark when we were coming in, so we went down into the Indian village. There were 13 homes there -- Ralph took me to his grandmother's house and I stayed there overnight. Then I went on up to find my work. I was given a tent and I started to work.

I worked all summer and then school time came again. All the kids were going back to school and I thought, "I don't want to stay here, I want to keep on going to school" so I went back with the kids and the school took me back. I stayed there with my brothers and sisters, because I needed to watch them. Then Ralph and I graduated. Now, our education was limited -- we just did the basics of reading and writing. The boys were schooled to be electricians and plumbers, that kind of work, and the girls were conditioned to be people's maids. So we came on up to Yosemite and Ralph took me to his village there and then we were married down by the river and we started the family. I didn't realize what they did and I began to see things that the school had called "Indian things" that I wasn't supposed to do. I thought about it, thought maybe I shouldn't stay there. But I was with child and thought "Well, you know, we'll see what happens."

I had my firstborn and my husband's grandmother gave me this beautiful basket to put baby in. She sang a lullaby and I thought "How could you leave people like this, just wonderful people who cared about you?" So I began to kind of watch her and be with her. I watched her stow and boil acorn mush in a basket, gather acorns in a cone-shaped basket and of course we had baby in basket. I started to do some of the old ways that the school said not to do.

Ralph's grandmother worked for the Park Service. She didn't get a salary, she just came up and made her baskets and sold her little beaded pins. I learned to do some beading things from her. And then she passed away and the story of the Yosemite Miwok-Paiute people began to fade away. The chief interpreter was a good friend and he approached me and said, "Julia, how would you like to work in the museum for us and tell people about baskets and stories and the things that you did?" And I said, "But I'm not from the area -- I'm Coast Miwok and Kashia Pomo from the San Francisco Bay area. Besides, I can't make a basket." And he said, "Well, you can learn." Then I remembered that when I was in Indian school I used to go to Carson to look at the wonderful Washoe basket weaver's baskets. I thought about those little baskets. I said to my husband, "Maybe you can help me." And he said, "Okay."

He liked to hunt around Mono Lake and always took us over there. While he was hunting he would leave me with his great aunts. I didn't know they were basket weavers because every time I came around, they were shy about what they were doing. I didn't pay much attention to them. When the time came for me to try to find someone to help me to make a basket, I remembered them. I went to them and I asked, "Would you like to come to Yosemite and make a basket and work baskets like Gramma Lucy?" And they said, "Oh no, no, you do it." And I said, "But I don't know how to make a basket." And they said, "Okay, we'll show you." We started on my first little basket, and they told me, "When you finish that little basket, you have to give it away and you'll become a weaver." So I began to weave this little basket and it took a long time, but I learned very thoroughly about the kind of wood I was working with, willow wood, and they told me stories, about how you scrape the willow until it sings to you, how you wait for the plant to talk to you, and all these wonderful things.

I learned all these things and then came to the Park Service and said, "Okay. I think I can do it. But don't ask me to talk because I don't have the skill, I don't have the education that my coworkers have." And they said, "That's all right, you just sit back there."

So I worked away at that little basket and visitors would come and ask what I was doing. I would explain a little bit, and then the Park Rangers would come out and talk and tell stories about the Indian people. One day one of them said something I knew wasn't right, so I said to myself, "You know, I better start to answer questions and let the people know the true way of these people here, these wonderful, gifted people who have this beautiful talent to make these beautiful, large baskets using natural materials." And so I began to talk a little bit.

That first basket I made, the willow basket, it's still floating around out there somewhere. If I'm to have it, it'll come back. The second basket I made is in a private collection.

So little by little I began to learn more and more about the baskets, the shapes, the designs. I have probably studied with the top ten weavers in California. I'm probably the only Native American woman who has studied and had the opportunity to do this because I started the Park Service in 1960, so I've got a lot of years behind me.

NEA: What advice do you have for young basket makers?

MS. PARKER: If you find something you like to do, and if it's something like creating a basket, you can do it because the museums we have now are the protectors of our baskets and so we can go in and look at all these fine baskets and learn. If you have it in your heart that you want to do something, you can do it if you want to.

NEA: And then what do you see as any challenges to carrying on the basket-making tradition?

MS. PARKER: A few years back, a friend of mine and I started the California Indian Women's Basket Association, CIBA, with the hopes and dreams that this beautiful work that was left by our senior weavers would be carried on. The organization has grown quite large. My daughter is now the president, and she seeks the help of the elders to help her. We have young women wanting to learn and we have teachers. We go out and we find teachers that are skilled to help these young women. I have a daughter, a granddaughter, and a great grand girl, and we're all weavers.

NEA: What has been your greatest source of pride or happiness in your artistry?

MS. PARKER: Being able to go out into the fields and to gather all the natural plants and to prepare them as our elders once did and then make baskets of all shapes and designs for all kinds of purposes. That to me is something I've succeeded in doing.