Viola Martinez: Assimilation to Success

            The Eastern Sierra of California lost a beautiful woman recently who was an inspiration to everyone she touched in her life. Her name was Viola Martinez, and she was a Paiute Indian from Old Benton Hot Springs in Mono County.  She was a person who chose to make a success out of forced cultural assimilation but never forgot where she came from. 

            By no means did Viola have an easy life or normal upbringing.  She had fond memories of her early childhood, but all that changed when she was separated from her kin and sent to Sherman Indian boarding school in Los Angeles. Through all the hardships in her life, and there were many, she adapted to her new environment and mastered it-to the point that she was able to help many people including her own tribe back home in the Benton/Bishop area.

            Something compelled me to pull a book off the library shelf entitled Viola Martinez, California Paiute, Living in Two Worlds by Diana Meyers Bahr.  As I thumbed through the pages, my interest was caught by a mention of Viola going into the Eastern Sierra mountains when she was a child with her aunt Mary for three months during the summer to trade with the Basque sheepherders in the different canyons leading up to Mono Lake.  Mary traded boiled eggs to the herders for leg of lamb, sheepherder’s bread and wine.

            Upon reading Diana Bahr’s book it became apparent that there was so much more to Viola’s life than memories of gathering pine nuts with her family in the surrounding hills around Benton.  After being forbidden to speak her own language or practice her Paiute culture at boarding school, Viola went on to get a college degree from Santa Barbara State and became a social worker helping impoverished people.  She then got a job as an employment counselor for Japanese internees at Manzanar War Relocation Camp near Lone Pine.  That was followed by a career as a teacher and founding member of the Los Angeles American Indian Education Commission. 

            When Viola arrived at boarding school in 1927 after being snatched away from her home by Federal officials, it was a sad and lonely adjustment she had to make.  The school was run with military precision and completely opposite of her previous life right down to being encouraged to adopt Christianity. 

            The first thing she noticed was that there was running water, electricity and flush toilets.  They were still getting water from the creek and using outhouses back in the Owens Valley at that time. 

            Viola thought it odd that the entrance to buildings did not face east as was the custom in Indian housing.  They always placed the entrance to the east to face the morning sun.  The constant noise of the city from vehicles and streetcars was new to her as were the strange looking palm trees. 

            Viola resisted some attempts to erase her Indian heritage by continuing to speak her language with other Paiute students.  They would climb the palm trees to sneak away, but invariably, someone would snitch on them, and they would get punished.

            Little by little Viola began to adapt and accept her new way of life.  As she looked at those around her, she began to realize that she was just as smart and capable of anything that the dominate White society could do or achieve. 

            Once Viola began to feel good about herself and gained the support and trust of her school masters, things began to open up.  She no longer minded the “out work” of having to do menial work for White families.  Instead, she mastered the English language, studied and worked extra hard. 

            Because of her brightness, good disposition and trustworthiness, her teachers began to promote her and considered her for a scholarship to college.  Her education allowed her to apply for a job as a welfare social worker after college, and she learned to have compassion for those less fortunate through that experience. 

            In 1937 Viola returned to her home in the Owens Valley when relatives informed her that land exchanges would be provided establishing reservations in Bishop, Big Pine and Lone Pine.  By 1940 the federal government built new housing and constructed water and sewer systems on the reservation lands. 

            By 1942 Viola married a Paiute man named Andrew Martinez. He had also gone to school at the Sherman Institute, but not when Viola was there.  Vi soon got a job with the FHA in Bishop trying to deal with a housing shortage and the continuing discrimination against Indians and women.  The powers that be just seemed to work against her at every turn even though she was trying her best to help all those in need. 

            Things were about to change when Viola was told of a counselor job at Manzanar Japanese internment camp in 1945.  At her job Viola soon realized the injustice of the camps and found the Japanese Americans to be resourceful and wonderful people.  She could relate to them after what she had experienced in her own life being forced to leave her home to live in a foreign environment.  It was a story that matched the discrimination and persecution of her native people across the entire nation. 

            Eventually, Viola went back to school to get a teaching credential and taught third grade in the Los Angeles Unified School District for 18 years.  Her career led her to become a founding member of the (AIEC) American Indian Education Commission until its demise in 1998.

            She was always active trying to help children whether it was at her job or through her church.  She was a wonderful mother to her two adopted children and taught them to be proud of their heritage and where they came from.

            She returned to Benton Hot Springs in later years to look at her old home up on the hill in the Indian village where the remnants of shacks still remain.  She had been gone so long that she had to get permission to walk around the property that was once her home.  As she gazed at the dilapidated structures weathering away, she could see the circle of her life.  It was a life of service to all people, not just her own. 

            Viola Martinez passed away on February 3, 2010 at age 96.

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10 Responses to “Viola Martinez: Assimilation to Success”

  1. Vianne Wentzell Says:

    Dear Wendyscotty, My mother, Viola Martinez, would have really loved your blog. I really miss her and sometimes google her name and marvel at how many places I can find her name mentioned on the internet. I used to show her things I found on you tube and things on the web about her book and she would say ” E naw dee boo”, Paiute for Oh my goodness. She couldn’t believe it. She would say “what’s so special about my story?” But, it made her happy. I really like your stories and the beautiful pictures. By the way, my mom never was a member of Green Peace, or went on rubber boats.

  2. Cheryl Callahan Says:

    My deepest condolences to Vianne and Kirk. I remember her voice was soft and her smile was sweet. She always made you feel loved. I loved her very much. I knew her as, “Aunt Vi”. Both my parents, Cleve & Did, went to Sherman with her. So many great memories. She truly was a kind heart and an inspiration. This is such a nice write-up/blog on her.

  3. D. Sinclair Says:

    I teach a class called Peoples of the United States and my students just finished reading and writing about Viola Martinez. They all agree that she was a special person. Not only did they learn a lot, but they came away inspired to become their own best selves. My condolences also to Vianne and Kirk.

  4. Thomas Bliss Says:

    I just finished Diana’s beautiful book moments ago. I am a white Los Angeles native who has spent a great deal of time in the Owens Valley. I can’t exaggerate how meaningful Viola’s insights into her culture and Southern California history are to me.

  5. Mike the Knife Says:

    There is so much love on this page that I am overwhelmed. Bless you all.

  6. Laura Says:

    I picked up a copy Viola Martinez, California Paiute, at the Mono Lake Visitor Center a couple of years ago on our almost annual trek to the Eastern Sierra. I am so glad I did. What an incredible story and tribute to an inspiring lady. I loved reading about how she would head over the pass into Yosemite with her aunt (or grandmother?), I enjoyed the stories about the pinenut harvesting, and was amazed at how much Vi’s life spanned such a changing world which she navigated through with optimism and grace. She seemed to have a sweet and kind demeanor, and yet a tenacity that wouldn’t quit. I am re-reading the book now and enjoying it as much as I did two years ago.

    • windyscotty Says:

      Thank you Laura for your nice words about a truly remarkable lady, Viola Martinez. My biggest regret was that I did not get to meet her. By the time I read the book, she had passed away the year before. At least we have her memory and legacy that lives on through Diana’s book.

  7. Diama Meyers Bahr Says:

    As the author of the book, I am so moved and complimented by these comments. Viola really told her own story in my book. I love learning that so many people are reading the book, especially students.

  8. john Says:

    I am in awe, what wonderful writtings.

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