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Our Laguna: An informative visit to Indian Territory

Laguna Beach Sister Cities Assn., formed to connect with Menton, France, to learn more about its culture, learned on Sunday about a culture closer to home.

The Wood family hosted a soiree at Indian Territory on South Coast Highway for the group. The event included some history of the Native American tribes of the Southwest, recounted in the Woods' museum that is accessible only through the store.

"This is an opportunity to learn about our cultural heritage," said association President Karyn Philippsen.

"Some of the artifacts are from Laguna Beach. But this is more than a museum; Indian Territory has been a landmark for 42 years," she said.

The store and the museum are a labor of love for the family.

Jennifer Wood, granddaughter of Indian Territory founder Len Wood and his wife, Toni, welcomed the group in French in honor of the connection to Menton and in English. Another granddaughter, 13-year-old Emily, who was recently accepted into the Southern California Youth Chorus, sang two songs in French.

The group was seated in rows of chairs for the presentation by the store founder and his son, Matt.

"Back when we were building the store little by little, I wanted to block off the wall [between the museum and commercial area] so people would have a sense of things made with ceremony," said the family patriarch.

The elder Wood explained how girls were taught to weave rugs and baskets. Their skills made them strong and that made the tribe strong.

"Every tribe has is own techniques and young girls were taught to make one perfect stitch, followed by 10,000 perfect stitches," Wood said. "It was a metaphor for all her duties. So when you see a beautiful basket, you know the payoff is a beautiful woman."

Matt Wood said the family was blessed to deal with the artifacts.

Brilliantly colored rugs — one in the salmon pink and black that Sister Cities member Toni Iseman chose for her reelection campaign posters — and implements line the walls of the museum. More delicate and valuable items are behind a glass wall.

Items for sale in the store and for the collection come from a variety of sources; the museum items often come from a storage area or container that has been unexplored for years.

A cavalry officer might have taken home a Navajo child's blanket and stuck it in a cedar chest where it stayed for 125 years, the younger Wood said. Then someone rediscovers it and brings it to the store and asks what it is worth. Sometimes they are astonished at the value.

Baskets have sold from $10 to $1 million, and each has a story to tell, Wood said.

Unfortunately, not too many of the cherished children's blankets are still around. They were lost when the Navajos were forced to trek to a location far from their native land, and then on the "long walk" back home where they found their land parched and their beloved 1,000-year-old peach trees chopped down.

"They are still mad about that," Wood said.

But the woman who made the "long walk," fought against Kit Carson, and survived the genocide, had a child and it survived.

"The Navajos are big people, a strong people." Wood said. "They were the masters of whatever they tried."

Originally, they didn't weave, but they learned, Wood said.

"They didn't make jewelry, but they became masters."

Their highly colored woven rugs are highly prized.

Asked by Barbara Ring what dyes were used, Wood showed examples of items colored with both natural and aniline dyes,

He said the family is confident that one of the pre-1860s rugs behind the glass wall was dyed with cochineal — a bug that produces a rich red. Some rugs were woven of pre-dyed "trade yarns," bought or traded for by the weavers and sometimes re-spun.

Each tribe had its own colors and styles, Wood said.

A colorful jacket, which drew the interest of the audience, is made of tanned deer hide, scraped very thin. According to its provenance, it was purchased in 1898. The decorations are made of dyed porcupine quills and include depictions of the American flag, a gauntlet, and spirits.

It was made by a Sioux, a tribe that called themselves the Lacota.

Len Wood said most of the museum's collection comes from the South and Midwest because Europeans landed first on the East Coast and not much survived their appearance among the tribes in the area.

Following the visit to the museum, the group returned to the store, to again partake of a variety of cheeses, crackers, fruit and beverages that topped the showcases of jewelry and items for sales and to pose questions to the Woods.

The event also included entertainment by the Trio Sonate, which included Cynthia Wood, Jennifer's mother and Matt's wife.

"I don't think any of us will ever drive South Coast Highway again without realizing what a treasure is here," Philippsen said.

The "us" included Mary and Herb Rabe, Minette Carterdi and Jan Williams, James Moore and John Gustafson (not the city building official), Karen Wood, John Hoover, Odile Dewar and Dan Andersen, Roger and Maggie Owens, Colleen McCallion, Jacqueline and Alan Messing, Jonathan and Bonnie Wolin, Daniel and Francine Scinto, Dr. Gary and Betsy Jenkins, Jean Paris, Ann McDonald and several board members.

School and Sister Cities board member Betsy Jenkins said education is an important component of the Sister Cities mission.

Cross-cultural exchange programs, such as the visit to Indian Territory, are designed to encourage locals' participation.

The group was established in January 2009, with the primary goal of a long and meaningful relationship with Menton. The relationship and any future ones encourage a collaborative exchange of cultural, educational and business activities.

"We are looking for other sister cities and appreciation of different cultures," association Secretary Nancy Beverage said. "With the experience we now have, we will be smarter at it."

The association board also includes Vice President Pat Kollenda, Treasurer Mary Reinier, Helene Garrison, Fred and Jennifer Karam, Chic McDaniel, Justin Myers, Steven Rabago, Carol Reynolds, Richard Schwartzstein and Iseman.

For more information about the nonprofit, all volunteer organization, visit http://www.LagunaBeachSisterCities.org or call (949) 492-0883.

OUR LAGUNA is a regular feature of the Laguna Beach Coastline Pilot. Contributions are welcomed. Write to Barbara Diamond, P.O. Box 248, Laguna Beach, 92652; call (949) 380-4321 or e-mail coastlinepilot@latimes.com.

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