Remembering Avis Punkin (North Fork Mono)
We at ACTA are saddened by the passing of traditional basket weaver Avis Punkin who was a two-time master artist in ACTA’s Apprenticeship Program, first in 2003 with grand daughter-apprentice artist Carly Tex in coiled basketry; and then in 2009 with daughter-in-law-apprentice artist Julie Dick Tex in creating a twined basket for sifting acorn flour. It was a privilege to have known Avis and witnessed her commitment to family, community, and high standards in the practice of Mono tradition.
--Amy Kitchener, ACTA Executive Director
Avis Punkin was born in North Fork, California, and was a lifelong resident and an active member of the North Fork Mono community. She was the youngest of 12 children born to Annie Schulte and Frank Tex. She was the mother of 5 children, with 26 grand and great-grandchildren. Avis was dedicated to helping her people. After 28 years as a Social Services Coordinator for Central Valley Indian Health Project, Inc., where her interest and expertise with the Indian Child Welfare Act lead her to help dozens of families, she retired for a short period before being elected to Tribal Council for the North Fork Mono Rancheria. As a Council Member she often traveled to Washington, D.C., and to locations throughout the nation on Tribal business, always willing to share her Mono culture. Even in the hospital she was very excited to hear about news of the Tribes’ recent successes exclaiming, “Well, now I have to get better!” Avis was re-elected to the Council for a third term just days before her passing.
Known to be a tireless advocate and leader for her Tribe, to us, she will always be remembered as Grandma. She was our family matriarch, teacher, and our Master basketweaver. Her soft, big hands manipulated dried sticks and split roots into fine works of functional art. A deliberate weaver, she was skilled enough to know how many sticks to add in order to give it just the right shape. She strived for perfection in her work, and expected no less of her apprentices.
Weaving was more than a hobby, it was a lifestyle and a family legacy. Avis loved her culture and in her role as a tradition-bearer she was carrying on a family legacy of traditional values and customs. One of her favorite sayings was, “if you’re going to do it at all, do it right!” Avis realized that her students’ work was a reflection of her skills as a teacher, as well as reflection on her teachers. Her apprentices remember her strict teaching and although hearing, “that doesn’t look good, rip it out,” was discouraging, it instilled a desire to always do better.
Avis descended from a long line of basketweavers. Other weavers in the family included her mother, Annie, older sisters Ella McSwain and Daisy McMann, and her nephew Ulysses “Uly” Goode. Their baskets are on display and archived in many museums and personal collections across the country. Within the community, Avis gained a role as the cradleboard maker. Many babies have slept in a basket made by Avis. We do not know how many she made, but we estimate about 2-3 a year.
Although Avis was a follower of the Christian faith, she maintained balance between that and her beliefs and practice of traditional Mono culture. This is a balance we strive for, as we live in a contemporary world and maintain our traditional ways. She was willing to share her traditional cultural knowledge and talking about the “old ways” as long as someone was willing to listen and learn. She often talked about bringing those ways back because it helped to restore a sense of faith and Tribal unity. She was a fluent speaker of the Mono language, and enjoyed language lessons and conversing with her family in the language. She giggled if they made a mistake in pronunciation, but she was quick to correct and let them know they were still doing well.
In mid-2012, Avis was diagnosed with lung cancer, and despite cancer treatments, her health deteriorated. On November 7, she was admitted to the hospital with a lung infection; it was too much for her already weak lungs to bear. She died in the hospital on November 9, surrounded by family members.
It is rare to find someone as dedicated to family and to the Tribal community as Avis. It is difficult to put into words how much she meant to her family and to the community. Through her death, the family loses a mentor, advisor, healer, mother, and grandmother. The community loses a charismatic leader, skilled artist, knowledgeable tradition-bearer, and a good friend. Her children and grandchildren weave with Avis’ teachings in mind, and through them, her family legacy will live on.