PENINSULA PROFILE: She explores, teaches Makah heritage with cedar weaving

By Diane Urbani de la Paz
Peninsula Daily News

THE MAKAH CULTURAL and Research Center, 1880 Bayview Ave., Neah Bay, is open to the public from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily.

Admission to the museum, with its natural history and cultural exhibits, is $5 for adults; $4 for students, seniors 62 and older and military service members in uniform.

For information visit or phone 360-645-2711.

Take Home Fish, one of Neah Bay’s best-known sellers of smoked salmon, is at 881 Woodland Ave.; owner Kimm Brown can be reached via Take Home Fish’s Facebook page and at 360-645-4334.

THE PENINSULA COLLEGE Shades of Color Club, a group open to students and other community members, meets monthly at Peninsula College, 1502 E. Lauridsen Blvd. in Port Angeles.

To start the new year, the club is sponsoring a cedar rose-making workshop from 4 p.m. to 5:30 p.m. Wednesday at the Peninsula College Forks site, 71 S. Forks Ave.

There’s no charge for the class, and all materials will be provided for shaping cedar roses with instructor Jennifer James, a Makah weaver and Peninsula College student.

There’s no need to sign up in advance, but more information is available at the Forks site at 360-374-3223.

Each participant will have time to make several roses: one to take home and more for decorations at the April 29 rededication of the Brick Johnson Totem Pole at Peninsula College in Port Angeles.

The totem pole, which the late Jamestown S’Klallam master carver Brick Johnson gave to the college in 1971, has been refurbished by the Johnson family.

To find out more about the Shades of Color Club and other workshops planned for 2014, contact Peninsula College’s Ami Magisos at or 360-417-7987.
NEAH BAY — Walking into the forest of her ancestors, Jennifer James seeks a special substance. It has a strong, protective spirit, she believes, and it can be woven into art large and small: baskets, hats, roses.

It’s cedar bark, which James, a Makah weaver, uses to connect with the women and men who came before her. Born and raised in Seattle’s Central District, she moved to Neah Bay as an adult, to raise her son and to learn with him about her tribe and culture.

In the years since, James has learned to weave from Theresa Parker of the Makah Cultural and Research Center, as well as from her late aunt Nora James and her cousins Mary Hunter and Maria Lopez.

“I’m so fortunate to have all of these weavers around to ask,” James says.

She’s learning the staircase and turn-down techniques and developing her own style, even as she prepares to share her skills in a community workshop.

This Wednesday, James will be the instructor in a free cedar rose-making class at the Peninsula College Forks Extension Site, 71 S. Forks Ave. All supplies will be provided for the workshop from 4 p.m. to 5:30 p.m.; participants will be encouraged to take one rose home and make a few more for the Brick Johnson Totem Pole rededication, a ceremony to be held at Peninsula College this spring.

James herself can weave about 20 cedar roses inside of an hour. Her hands are trained to work with small pieces, twisting and folding until a petite flower appears.

In a way, this is the easy part. Harvesting cedar bark is the big job, in which James must find the right tree — one she can almost encircle with her arms — and then use a chisel to begin pulling the long strips away. It’s almost like snapping a linen sheet across a bed, except she’s working upward.

The bark wriggles and catches on knots on the trunk. Sometimes it falls off in your face, James says. If it’s on the young side, it’s resistant, she finds; the old-growth cedar is more flexible.

The first time she ventured into the woods, James was nervous. She was brought up in the city, after all.

Among the trees, she kept hearing animals’ footsteps. Cougar? Bear? They turned out to be deer.

Fortunately, James had a friend, her “weaving sister,” Kimm Brown, on these forays.

“She’s so woodsy,” James says with a smile. Brown, besides being a weaver, works with her father, also named Kimm Brown, at Take Home Fish in Neah Bay. Which makes James and Brown two of the community’s diplomats.

Take Home Fish is one of the most popular stops for travelers to Neah Bay, along with the Makah Cultural and Research Center where James works. Her title is gift-shop cashier, but she’s also the expert responder to random questions.

One recent afternoon, James chatted with visitors — from parts of Asia and Oregon — about how to find Shi Shi Beach, the pleasures of the Cape Flattery trail and the kinds of seafood available that day at Take Home Fish. She talked with customers too about the gift shop’s Makah jewelry, made from the olive shells that are increasingly hard to find on local beaches.

“As our shores are rising, things are disappearing,” James said.

Life in Neah Bay is a long way from what she knew growing up.

“I went through culture shock, coming from a faster-paced place,” James says.

She still misses the city but is determined to stay here with her son Jonas Moses, now 12. He’s been studying the Makah language for years now — knows more words than James does — and loves the tribal ways. He earned his drum by singing the Makah pullers to shore during last summer’s Tribal Canoe Journeys, James noted.

“He’s learning to weave, to keep his mother happy,” she added.

When she asks, “What were you doing outside today?” Jonas answers, “Just being Indian.”

She, meanwhile, is taking computer courses at Peninsula College’s Forks site while participating in the Shades of Color Club.

James was among the students who founded the organization following the spring 2012 Washington Students of Color Conference in Yakima. James and a small group of Peninsula College students attended the conference and came home energized; the Shades of Color Club was born soon after.

In meetings and workshops over the past year and a half, Shades of Color has explored topics such as “Honoring our Ancestors,” “The Meaning of Aloha” and “What is LGBTQ?” Members also get together for informal social gatherings to have fun and build solidarity, said Ami Magisos, Peninsula College’s coordinator of multicultural student services.

Non-students are welcome at Shades of Color meetings, Magisos said, adding that club leaders will set the dates for winter-quarter meetings when they go on retreat Jan. 13.

Members including James also are looking forward to attending the next Washington Students of Color Conference, to take place in Yakima in April.

The gathering explores social justice, activism and personal development, said Magisos. Like the Shades of Color Club, the conference is a venue where people from various backgrounds meet to discover their differences and their commonalities.

The plainspoken James takes the diversity-speak and boils it down.

“People still need to learn how to socially deal with each other,” she said.

Also in 2014, James hopes to participate in the Bridge Program for tribal members at the Evergreen State College in Olympia.

She’s waiting till spring quarter for this, since winter weather can hit the roads between Neah Bay and Evergreen hard. But James is eager to study how tribal communities can better communicate with local and state governments. And there’s a course in activism that especially piques her interest.

Wednesday’s cedar rose-making workshop, it turns out, is another way to connect people.

The Shades of Color Club “decided it would be great to kick off the new year,” Magisos said.

The class presents an opportunity to both learn a tribal craft and to gain awareness of local Native American traditions. These roses, as individual as their weavers, are traditionally given away at weddings, potlatches, birthday celebrations, graduations and memorial services.

James, for her part, will keep up her quest for technique and skill.

“Weaving is believing,” she and Brown like to say, as they make bracelets, rings, barrettes and baskets to sell — and as they expand their skills.

“I’m still learning . . . Once I get the turn-down [technique] down, I’ll do a hat,” James added.

She also dreams of making a bentwood box like the one at the Makah museum.

“I’m not in a rush,” she said. “You can’t rush cedar.”

Last modified: January 04. 2014 5:57PM
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