For Julia Parker, weaving baskets connects her to the lives and traditions of her ancestors, telling the story of a people that for more than 4,000 years populated villages throughout the Yosemite Valley. In the Spark episode ” Legacies,” Parker guides viewers through the area where her village had once been as she explains the traditional process of making her baskets.
Born in 1929 in Sonoma County of the Coast Miwok and Kashaya Pomo peoples of the Yosemite, Parker moved to the Yosemite Valley in 1949 to live in the village of her husband, of Miwok Paiute descent. As a young woman, Parker was compelled to learn everything she could about the old ways of basket weaving. She studied basketry with the elders of her village, including her husband’s grandmother Lucy Telles. Telles was a highly innovative and celebrated weaver, whose masterpiece — a colossal 3-foot-by-19-inch storage basket — is now on display at the Yosemite Museum. Parker remained in her husband’s Yosemite Valley village until 1969, when the government bulldozed the region to make way for campsites.
Concerned that these ancient methods of making baskets would die out with the weavers of Telles’s generation, Parker dedicated her life to passing on the knowledge and skills she’d gained. Since 1960, Parker has demonstrated basket weaving behind Yosemite’s Indian Museum, in the same spot where Telles used to weave and sell her baskets and beadwork to tourists. She graciously answers visitors’ questions in an effort to share her culture with others.
Parker is an innovator in her own right, with samples of her work in the Smithsonian Institution and in the collection of the Queen of England. Her baskets demonstrate a staggering complexity of design, that is unparalleled in the work of her colleagues. She makes every one of her baskets by first collecting the needed grasses and sticks, then treating them with moisture and heat in order to make them supple. She also prepares the dyes from natural materials. And since there are no established patterns for different types of baskets, the entire design of the basket has to be formed in Parker’s mind before she begins weaving. The process is slow and labor-intensive, which means that a single basket can take several months, sometimes well over a year to complete.
Parker, now in her 70s, has inspired her daughter Lucy Parker and granddaughter Ursula Jones to continue making traditional basketry. Spark follows Parker and her family as they make the 350-mile journey to see the work of their ancestors at the Phoebe A. Hearst Museum of Anthropology at UC Berkeley, which houses approximately 9,000 baskets.