On a perfect summer day in the Sierra Nevada foothills, basketweavers from across California gather in the Gold Rush–era town of Ione for fellowship, friendly displays of their skills and a chance to celebrate their ancient art. In the midst of the annual gathering of the California Indian Basketweavers Association, a silver-haired lady quietly enters the park. With glitter sparkling in her long silver hair, ankle-length red velvet skirts swirling as she walks and a big smile that seems to be dancing on her face, she quickly attracts attention from the weavers and elders, many of whom flock to visit with her. Julia Parker, 82, is one of Indian country’s most acclaimed basketweavers and cultural practitioners, and is also the matriarch of a remarkable weaving family that includes daughter Lucy, granddaughter Ursula Jones and great-granddaughter Naomi Jones.
After watching Parker simultaneously weave, direct acorn cooking and share from her bottomless basket of stories, it’s hard to believe that she didn’t grow up immersed in tribal tradition, but it’s true. Parker, Kashaya Pomo/Coast Miwok, was born in Graton, California in 1929. She recalls just snatches of her early childhood, such as her grandmother singing her “Indian songs”; at the age of 6, her father passed on, and her mother Lilly Pete soon joined him in the spirit world. Parker and her four siblings were taken from their grandmother and sent off to a foster home.
When she was in eighth grade, Parker was sent to the Stewart Indian School in Nevada where, like other young Natives, she was forced to turn away from her cultural roots. In her 1991 book, It Will Live Forever, Parker said: “The philosophy at Stewart was to teach students: ‘Don’t be Indian. Don’t sit on the ground. Don’t eat acorn.’?”
In 1947, she met Ralph Parker, whom she married a short time later; that marriage has endured for more than 60 years.
After graduating from high school and moving with Ralph to a cabin with no electricity or telephone in Yosemite’s “Indian Village,” Parker became close to Ralph’s grandmother Lucy Telles, Yosemite Miwok/Paiute. Telles was one of Native California’s most famous 20th century basketweavers, and followed many of the old ways. She was known for incorporating patterns like butterflies and flowers into the baskets she wove to sell to eager visitors to Yosemite Park, and gradually taught her new granddaughter-in-law much of what she knew about her cultural practices, including beadwork and acorn lore.
Telles was the park’s cultural demonstrator for many years, so when she passed on in 1955, the National Park Service asked Parker to carry on the acorn-making demonstration. Parker didn’t feel she was the right person since she had not been born into the Yosemite Miwok/Paiute people, but the rangers talked her into it. Parker then decided that basketry was an essential part of the acorn demonstration, and soon found weavers willing to teach her their art.
Lucy Parker, 57, also an accomplished weaver, recalls those early days. “I was born and raised in Yosemite Valley,” she says. “I used to go to work with Mom in the village. I learned to clean the willows, and when Mom went to Lee Vining to learn from the Paiute ladies there, I went along.
“I never thought that we were preserving our culture,” she says. “We just grew up doing ceremonies, learning songs and stories, learning how to gather materials and make baskets, and gather and cook the acorn. I’m grateful for that opportunity; I hear from people all the time who wish they had learned about their culture when they were younger.”
The next generations of Parkers also learned at grandma’s feet. “My daughter Ursula went with Mom to the Yosemite museum just like I did and learned the same way as I did,” says Lucy. Today, Ursula Jones, 37, and her 15-year-old daughter Naomi often join Lucy and Julia on trips, art shows and other gatherings to help cook acorn, weave baskets or just be together as a family.
In the years since she shyly accepted that job of cultural demonstrator at Yosemite, Parker has won acclaim from organizations and fans worldwide. In 1983, she met and gave a basket to Queen Elizabeth II; the basket is in the monarch’s collection in Windsor Castle.
In 2006, Parker became Dr. Julia Parker after the California College of the Arts conferred an honorary doctorate on her, and in 2007 she was the recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts National Heritage Fellowship, making it official that she is a national treasure.
Realizing that other Native people needed support to continue—and in some cases revive—basketry, Parker was one of the founders of California Indian Basketweavers Association in the early 1990s. She also works with the California Indian Storytellers Association and gives classes on basketweaving and other cultural arts to anybody willing to learn.
Brian Bibby, an independent Indian ethnologist who has written extensively about California tribes says, “Julia is really an individual artist working within a traditional art form.” He hesitates to call her a traditionalist since “she has had several different teachers from the Paiute, Western Mono, Pomo and other tribes.”
Bibby adds, “She loves to experiment with the material. She likes to make her own discoveries. But she has been taught very specific basketry traditions and techniques, from exceptional historic weavers like Carrie Bethel, Minnie Mike, Alice Wilson, Lucy Telles and Mabel McKay as well as observing and talking with others.”
Parker has made it her life’s quest to learn as many aspects of basketmaking as she can, and she is working on making her twining technique even tighter. “Twining is the oldest way to set a basket together,” she says. “There aren’t that many twiners alive anymore.”
Parker, Bibby, ethnologist Craig Bates and Beverly Ortiz, Parker’s biographer and longtime student of California Indian cultures, are working together to create a grand retrospective of Parker’s life spent with her hands plunged into willow, redbud and tule to create the pieces of everyday life in California tribal communities that have come to be regarded as high art. “The exhibit will open in two years,” says Parker. And she plans to be in Yosemite National Park, the ancestral home of Miwoks and Paiutes and the valley where she still comes in to work every day, for the opening.