Violet Parrish Chappell, 88, prominent Native American educator, dies

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Violet Parrish Chappell lived most of her life on the Kashaya Pomo reservation near Stewarts Point in northwestern Sonoma County, and she was dedicated to the preservation of that culture.

She died Sunday at a Santa Rosa hospital from complications of recent strokes. Chappell was 88.

She learned the language and traditions of her people, who have inhabited the Sonoma Coast for thousands of years, from one of the best teachers possible. Her mother was Essie Parrish, for most of the 20th century a spiritual leader of the tribe and one of Sonoma County’s most accomplished and most prominent figures.

One of Parrish’s 13 children, Violet Chappell grew up to become a lifelong educator. She taught at the reservation’s school and for years traveled with a sister, Vivian Wilder, to schools across Northern California to instruct teachers on how to deepen and bring alive the teaching of native history.

Among those who count themselves as grateful students of Chappell are Sonoma State University anthropology professor Margaret Purser and Caltrans archaeologist Kathy Dowdall, both of whom worked with Chappell on an exhaustive, yearslong Pomo cultural study that in 2016 was awarded the Governor’s Historic Preservation Award.

“She was a mentor,” said Dowdall, who considered Chappell not only her teacher but one of her best friends.

Dowdall was among the people who were closest to Chappell and was with her when she died.

“I’m heartbroken,” Dowdall said, “and I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

SSU professor Purser praised Violet Chappell as “a true cultural hero.”

Purser said Chappell, along with her sister, Wilder, her brother, Otis Parrish, and other members of her family, “worked tirelessly for decades to document and preserve Kashaya language, stories and traditional knowledge to make sure it was there to pass on to the next generations, as a body of knowledge that belongs first and foremost to the tribe itself.”

Chappell also kept alive Kashaya Pomo art and crafts. She was well-known for her bead work and for the traditional baskets she made.

“She learned from her mother a lot of things,” said Paul Chappell, her husband of 60 years. “She stuck to her mother’s ways.”

The former Violet Parrish was born on Aug. 4, 1930, in the Mendocino Coast settlement of Manchester.

Her father, Sidney Parrish, was a member of the Point Arena-Manchester area’s Central Pomo or Boya tribe. Her mother was born Essie Pinola to the Kashaya Pomo, whose traditional lands extended from about the Gualala River south to Salmon Creek and inland to about what is now Lake Sonoma.

Violet Parrish grew up speaking the languages of both the Kashaya Pomo and the Point Arena Pomo. As a young woman, she left the reservation near Stewarts Point to earn a degree in early childhood education at the college known now as San Jose State University.

She returned to the reservation to become a Head Start teacher, while all the time studying and teaching Pomo language and culture.

She was 28 and was dancing in Sebastopol when she met Paul Chappell.

“There was a nightclub and they had live music,” he recalled. “She happened to be there with her cousin, Rosalie.”

Paul Chappell and Violet Parrish married on the last day of 1958 in Reno. They lived for a time in Richmond and in Cedarville, in Modoc County, before settling about 50 years ago on the Kashaya reservation.

Violet Parrish matured into one of the native community’s most respected elders. Sustaining one of her mother’s priorities, she worked to preserve the Kashaya’s language, beliefs, moral teachings and traditions.

Dowdall, the Caltrans archaeologist, first met Chappell and sensed her passion for preservation of Kashaya Pomo culture 30 years ago. Then, Dowdall did research for her Sonoma State master’s thesis at the Sonoma Coast’s Salt Point State Park.

She said of Chappell, “She educated me and I went back and got ethnology training so I could be of use.”

The Kashaya elder and the state highways archaeologist came together again when, in 2008, Caltrans, the tribe, state parks and Sonoma State University began work on the Kashaya Cultural Landscape Project. Caltrans took the lead to better understand the coast Pomos because Highway 1 slices right through their historic lands.

Mindful of the historic importance and longevity of the area’s native residents, the ambitious endeavor documented the tribe’s known archaeological sites and recorded many of its practices, traditions and stories.

Professionals directed the project, Dowdall said, “but this was Violet’s baby, I can tell you that.”

The archaeologist said that though the Kashaya Landscape Project was officially completed in 2015, the work of documenting and preserving Pomo culture continues. Just two weeks ago, said Dowdall, who lives in Santa Rosa and is proud of her own Sonoma County ancestry as a member of the deeply rooted Bertolini family, she and Parrish worked at the Pomo elder’s kitchen table on the reservation.

“She was an educator from beginning to end,” Dowdall said.

Purser, the SSU prof, said of Chappell, “I’m grateful for her generosity, her tenacity, and her willingness to teach what were often difficult lessons.”

In addition to her husband on the Kashaya reservation, Chappell is survived by her sister, Vivian Wilder of the reservation; her brothers, Otis Parrish of Windsor and Ronald Parrish of Renton, Washington; and by numerous nieces and nephews.

Visitation is from 4 to 8 p.m. Thursday at Eggen & Lance Chapel in Santa Rosa. Services are at 1 p.m. Friday at the community center on the Kashaya reservation.

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