Preserving a Heritage Through Artistry

"I am part of what I call the re-generation--being introduced to traditional arts and dance by the Elders. I've set goals in my life to help keep Yurok culture going. I look at the regalia worn in the dances of my religion, and draw from past regalia makers' descriptions of things....I love the traditional but also need personal creativity. My jewelry is a completely different form."

--Gary Markussen, Yurok/Karuk jeweler, dancer and regalia maker

by Fernando Quintero

Otis Parrish, like the other jewelry makers featured in "Regenerations: Contemporary Native American Artists" at the Phoebe Hearst Museum of Anthropology, uses designs, materials and techniques that convey the duality of his existence.

Part of the last generation of full-blooded Kashaya Indians, a band native to northwest Sonoma County and part of the coastal California Pomo tribe, Parrish devotes much of his time to preserving his culture for future generations.

In his other life, Parrish is the Indian version of the urban cowboy: He raises his youngest of nine children in Albany. He works in an office as a job counselor in Oakland with the United Indian Nation. He sits on boards of community groups. And he is working toward an advanced college degree. He observes 35 years of sobriety.

"Regenerations" is an ongoing series of public programs, combining talks, artist demonstrations and works for sale by California Indian artists whose designs reflect the integration of traditional and contemporary styles.

The goal of the series is to give individual artists the opportunity to introduce themselves and address the historical, cultural and creative issues unique to contemporary Native Americans.

Other artists featured include Frank LaPena, Nomtipom Wintu painter and teacher; George Blake, a Hupa-Yurok Indian jeweler and carver; and Gary Markussen, Yurok-Karuk jeweler.

In Parrish's sterling silver and stone bracelets, necklaces and other jewelry, bold geometric patterns suggest both traditional basketry designs and the rigidity of modern life.

His creations are distinguished by the use of natural materials native to his tribe's land such as abalone, manzanita wood and magnesite.

"In our tradition, (magnesite) is the mother of all stone," he said.

Parrish's artistic objective is to develop a style that is not only his own, but also reflects the uniqueness of California Indian designs.

"It is important that as Indian artists, we work to promote and preserve our cultural traditions through art. Most of us depend on our traditions and beliefs for artistic inspiration," he said.

Born in 1937 on the Kashaya reservation near Santa Rosa, Parrish was inspired by his mother, Essie Parrish, and his aunt, Mabel McKay, both noted basket weavers and healers. Trained as a "commercial fine jeweler," the artist has been perfecting his silver techniques for more than 30 years.

In addition to his counseling job and jewelry designs, Parrish is involved in cultural activities. He is currently assisting the Anthropology Department on an archeological project at Fort Ross, located around Parrish's tribal grounds.

"What is unique about the project is that it gets local Indians involved in the research process. Their presence also helps ensure their land is treated with respect," said Parrish.

With tales of Indian lore and exciting archeological digs to tell, Parrish often spends his Saturday mornings visiting area elementary schools to spin a yarn or two (he was "trained in storytelling" by his mother). He has shown up at his daughter's school and last Saturday crashed a local star-gazing gathering to give his tribe's explanation of the cosmos.

"I like doing what I do," Parrish said. "Everything leads up to furthering my education so that I can be a wise elder and keep the culture going."


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