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.
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
“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
“Today, we could call it art, but
to them baskets were something they could use,” she
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
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.
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
In 2006, Parker received an
honorary doctorate from the California College of the
With so many baskets to create and
stories to share, Parker doesn’t see herself retiring
“I’ll just keep on working until
the Spirit tells me to stop,” she said.