What’s in a name?
For students at Patwin Elementary School in Davis, there is a rich history of tradition in their school’s name, and last month fourth-graders got a taste of just how rich and special that history is.
Visited by Diana Almandariz, a Patwin native educator, the students learned about life as members of the Patwin tribe, from the food they ate to the games they played; how they used their environment, but also protected it; and ultimately how their people suffered.
Almandariz is known as the “Tule Lady,” because of how she weaves the tule that grows locally to make everything from boats to beds. Under the watchful eye of Patwin students, she showed how she strips the outside of the tule reeds before weaving the reeds together into a mat that students could sit on.
But Patwin members also used tule to make ducks that would float on the river, attracting other ducks that tribe members would then throw a net over to catch.
Almandariz brought along one of those ducks for the students to see, as well as many other items and artifacts.
There was a cedar doll, “which doesn’t look like a doll,” Almandariz noted, but which kept bugs away during sleep.
She also had abalone, acorns and crystals — all traditionally used in a variety of ways by her people, and all found in the environment around them.
“There’s more you see on the ground in nature than what you might think,” she told the students.
She sees acorns and turns them into dice; polished pine nuts become part of a necklace. A deer scapula ends up a serrated-edge knife.
And what she finds, she said, can be traded with other tribes for things she needs.
“I don’t have any obsidian,” she said, so she’ll trade the tule boats she makes for obsidian.
But the Patwin were always careful to ensure that in taking from the environment, they weren’t harming it, she said.
Even when cutting tule from marshes, Almandariz said, she is careful to cut it in a way that it will grow back.
“Native people didn’t just cut things down and walk away,” she said. “They’d make sure it would survive.”
Almandariz has worked in education programs throughout the state for years, locally at the Cache Creek Preserve and the California State Indian Museum and she came to Patwin thanks to a grant from the Davis School Arts Foundation.
In addition to talking about her ancestors and how they lived, she also spoke of the destruction done to Native Americans by others.
She showed photographs of her family, including her grandfather, and talked about what became of many of them.
“A lot of our Patwin relatives were dragged off to Mission Dolores,” she said. “My ancestors were enslaved.”
Some of them never chose to come back, she said, and families were permanently split up.
“How do you think you would feel if that happened to your family?” she asked the students.
“Strange,” said one.
“Sad,” said another.
“We couldn’t even gather gold,” Almandariz told the students. “Laws said you could legally shoot an Indian on sight for panning for gold.
“And if any Indian was in jail, you could take him and enslave him. That happened to our people.”
The result was many psychological problems among her people, Almandariz said, as well as alcohol and drug abuse, depression and suicide.
“My grandfather chose to rely on alcohol and died young,” she said. “I’m 53 … and I’m the oldest (in my family).”
“The average lifespan of native people is 48,” she added. “We don’t live very long.”
“Why?” asked a student.
“Well, we inherited anger … and it made us reach out to things like alcohol and drugs,” she explained.
Given all that her people have gone through, teachers expressed their gratefulness that Almandariz is out there sharing and keeping alive the history and traditions of the Patwin people. And they hope she’ll make a return visit someday to her tribe’s namesake school.
“She’s such a treasure,” said teacher Vicki Rinne. “I love all the things she teaches them.”
It fits well with what they’re learning as well — students have been working on a Native American curriculum including an in-depth look at native California cultures and artists through hands-on activities.
— Reach Anne Ternus-Bellamy at [email protected] or 530-747-8051. Follow her on Twitter at @ATernusBellamy