Middle School (9 - 14) Books

WEAVING A CALIFORNIA TRADITION: A NATIVE AMERICAN BASKETMAKER, by Linda Yamane, Photos by Dugan Aguilar; 1996; Lerner Publications Company, 241 First Avenue North, Minneapolis, MN 55401, 800/328-4929. Illustrated, map, bibliography, glossary. 48 pp., $6.95 paper, $19.95/$14.95 hardcover.0-8225-2660-3 (hardbound), 0-8225-9730-6 (paperback); Middle School

This is the latest -- and one of the best -- of Lerner's unique "We're Still Here" series of Native American books for young people. The general structure of all these books is that they are written and photographed by tribal members. Each book follows a tribal young person -- here a girl, sometimes a boy -- of age from 11 - 14 through some daily life and some special activities. Contacts and knowledge of the tribal author always result in clear focus, accurate contemporary cultural portrayals, and bits of history interwoven in accurate and inoffensive ways.

This book is perhaps Lerner's best to date. Author Yamane is a California Rumisen Ohlone, herself a basketweaver and one of the founders (and a current officer) in the large and very active California Indian Basketweavers' Association. Too, she is a talented and sensitive writer of another book -- Ohlone legends, painstakingly reconstructed from old recordings made in Spanish. She is able to convey -- clearly and interestingly -- the plant gathering, preparation, and weaving techniques that 11-year-old Carly Tex learns from her relatives. Photographer Aguilar has a tribally mixed heritage: California Maidu and Pit River, and Nevada Walker River Paiute; his extensive photography studies result in better-composed and (naturally) lighted color photos than are usual in this series, though none are amateur.

We meet Carly's family and learn something of contemporary Mono life, most of it applicable to other small, surviving California Indian tribes. We attend a powwow with Carly and her sisters. Close-up photos and drawings show the traditional basketweaving techniques Carly is learning, and we see her first completed baskets. High point of the book -- as no doubt it was for Carly -- is her attendance at the annual California Indian Basketweavers' gathering, where traditional basketry is shown and judged by expert elders from many tribes. At the gathering, baskets are not just on show, they are used. Pictures and text show cooking of traditional acorn-meal mush in a watertight cooking basket, once the method by which all hot foods were cooked by California peoples.

As in all the Lerner books in this series, we also see that Indian young people, despite participation in interests and activities of their cultural heritage, are not quaintly isolated from modern life, as if in museum dioramas. Carly rides a bike, wearing typical pre-teen clothing, near her house, works with computers at school, hangs out with friends, plays European musical instruments (flute and piano). This contrasts sharply to how a competent but non-Indian writer handled basketry as an archaic bit of history centered on a fictional long-ago child, surrounded by antique tribal people wearing loincloths in a pre-contact-style village of bark houses.

This book points up the fact that Indian writers can do better jobs on this kind of book, not because of some mystic notion of blood influence on writing, but because they know and are part of the cultures they write about, hence can do so interestingly and accurately without the whiff of a museum diorama, bringing to life in print what is alive in fact. Lerner seems unique among publishers of books for children and schools, in having learned that this isn't a matter of PC-ism, but makes for good writing, good books.

Traditional basketmaking, a demanding craft that puts the weaver in direct touch with the earth and its plants, the seasons when they must be gathered, the long preparation times for roots, long shoots or withes, is the heart of the book, and Yamane, Carly, her mother and aunts all convey the absorbing interest and delicate precision of the work, as well as good times going gathering.

Nobody's wearing loincloths, or what those anthro types like to describe (for California Indian women) as " little aprons," everybody wears jeans. Carly's mom has on a particularly nifty dusty purple jacket, as she holds a laced-up bundle of redbud shoots. There are occasional touches of Indian contemporary culture in some photos. Carly's Dad, for instance, is usually shown wearing a visored cap -- but a close look shows it has been beaded in an elaborate design (a Plains reservation fad that's made its way all over Indian Country; there are also beaded sneakers and tennies). He probably made it himself; he does beadwork, and says his patterns are influenced by "generations of basketweavers in his family."

An interesting, well-written, beautiful book, very highly recommended. It will be liked by both older and younger readers than the approximately 10 - 14-year-olds that Lerner has pegged this series to. Why not get the whole series for your school? There are 11 (as of fall 1996) priced at $164.56 to school libraries. Bargain priced and an outstanding set of color-photo illustrated readings suitable for a broad age-range (a certian 60-year-old loves them!). Teachers will find a lot of info -- with many pix of baskets from many tribes, plants, and environmental issues -- to integrate with this book for classroom use at ArtPages here Basketry, Plants and Environmental Issues.

File: mi241

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Native American BOOKS, text and graphics copyright Paula Giese, 1996

Last Updated: 12/27/96