Monday, Sep 29 2008 01:51 PM

Jon Hammond: Handbook of the Kawaiisu: ground-breaking book nears publication

Tehachapi residents recently got their first look at a landmark new book about the local Indian people entitled Handbook of the Kawaiisu, which is being co-authored by Native American elder Harold Williams and archeologist Allan Garfinkel.

The two men presented a well-attended program about their ongoing efforts at Mama Hillybeans coffee house on Tehachapi Boulevard on Thursday, September 18.

The Kawaiisu people, who refer to themselves as the Nüwa, have been studied by various ethnographers, anthropologists and archeologists during the past 100 years, but published information about them has been sporadic, piecemeal and often inaccurate. That is about to change with the forthcoming publication of Handbook of the Kawaiisu, which will be by far the most complete and well-researched volume ever assembled about these fascinating and resilient people.

Harold Williams, who is the chairman of the Kern Valley Indian Council, began Thursday’s presentation with an introduction to his people. Recent dating of ancient village sites have confirmed that the Kawaiisu have lived in the Tehachapi area for at least 3,000 years. Harold has been involved in a number of cultural site monitoring and survey projects and is the most knowledgeable Nüwa about tribal prehistory.

While not a fluent speaker, both of Harold’s parents spoke Nüwa and he understands many native words. He introduced his sister Janice Williams, who has been instrumental in efforts to revive both the Nüwa language and the art of Kawaiisu basketry, which lapsed before World War II.

The Williams are descended from a long line of accomplished basketmakers and their great-grandmother, Emma Williams, and her daughter, Sophie Williams, were among the last of the old-time basket weavers. Janice is currently working on a basket that when completed will be the first Nüwa basket made in over 75 years. A number of antique Williams family baskets were on display Thursday night.

Following Harold’s portion of the program, Allan Garfinkel narrated a Power Point presentation covering some of the material that will appear in the book. The wealth of information included Kawaiisu mythology, geography, historical accounts and personal anecdotes. Dr. Garfinkel noted that even preparing the extensive bibliography of published accounts of the Kawaiisu covered 40 pages.

The program ended with a brief discussion by former state senator Phil Wyman, who obtained two grants to help with the research and eventual publication of Handbook of the Kawaiisu. Both during his many years in the legislature and since he left Sacramento, Wyman has done more than any other individual to help preserve Kawaiisu culture.

Wyman continues to work on funding for the book as well as a Tomo Kahnhi Visitors Center, and it was he who made arrangements for Chemehuevi basketmaker Mary Louise “Weegie” Claw to come to Tehachapi to help revive Kawaiisu basketry. The Wyman family’s Antelope Canyon Ranch has also been site of most material gathering for the native basketry program.

Handbook of the Kawaiisu is slated for publication next year, and despite all that has been done so far, there is still extensive work to be done before it can be published. Funds and donations are still being sought to complete the project.

When finished, this book will be the definitive volume about the Kawaiisu people and will shine a light on an ancient culture that thrived in the Tehachapi area for thousands of years.

Have a good week.

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