Native Village Youth and Education News
October, 2009


Park ranger keeps traditions alive

When Julia Parker first came to Yosemite National Park as a teenager, she folded laundry for a summer housekeeping job.

Now, at age 80, Parker is the oldest park employee and has the longest tenure. Technically a park ranger, Parker works as an American Indian cultural demonstrator at the Yosemite Museum.

Parker is the closest person Yosemite has to a celebrity. Her handmade baskets are featured in museums and private collections around the world. Tourists come just to see her. Her weaving videos can be found on YouTube.

For Parker, basket making is a metaphor for life.

“We start out very small and keep growing and growing, and when beautiful things happen to you, that’s the pattern in the basket,” she says.

Parker was born on an Indian reservation in Sonoma County. By the age of 7, her parents had died. She lived in foster care until age 12 when she was sent to an Indian boarding school in Nevada. After about five years, she came to Yosemite Valley to work at the park.

“Being orphaned, I had really no place to go, so I befriended the Yosemite kids and they told me to come to Yosemite because there was a lot of work there,” she recalled.

At the end of the summer, Parker returned to the school. It was there she met her husband, Ralph Parker. When the couple later married, they lived with her husband’s relatives at the Indian Village in Yosemite Valley.

“They took me in, sheltered me, and for that I was always grateful,” she said. “You might say it was then Yosemite became my home.”

Parker spent her days exploring the area by foot, gathering acorns for cooking and learning about her heritage. She was exposed to basket making by her husband’s grandmother, Lucy Telles, and his great-aunts.

“Today, we could call it art, but to them baskets were something they could use,” she said.

Baskets were used for collecting acorns, cradling a baby and cooking food. To make acorn mush, hot stones were placed inside a basket with acorn flour and water.

In 1968, while Parker was working as a gift shop clerk, park management invited her to help educate tourists as a storyteller and basket weaver.  Parker was encouraged by her husband and his great aunts to take the job.

For more than 40 years, Parker has immersed herself in basket making. She’s learned about and harvests the plants for her baskets. She's learned how to stain them. And she offers the the prayers, songs and offerings associated with basket making.

 Her personal motto: “I take from the earth with a ‘please’ and I give back to the earth with a ‘thank you.’”

In the early 1980s, Parker’s talents were recognized when she was asked to make a basket to present to Queen Elizabeth II.

“I figured she’s a queen so I can’t make her a cooking basket or a baby basket or a burden basket,” she said.

Parker ended up making her a gift basket, which is made as an offering for someone special. She worked on the basket for a year and presented it during the queen's visit to Yosemite in 1983. It is now part of the queen’s collection in Windsor Castle in England.

Other baskets made by Parker are on display in museums from Yosemite to Norway. Her work has also been featured in a number of museums in Washington, D.C., including the American Museum of Natural History and the Smithsonian Institution.

In 2006, Parker received an honorary doctorate from the California College of the Arts.

With so many baskets to create and stories to share, Parker doesn’t see herself retiring anytime soon.

“I’ll just keep on working until the Spirit tells me to stop,” she said.

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