Like many American Indian children, Viola Martinez — a Paiute Indian from California’s Owens Valley — was taken from her family and sent to a government boarding school in the early 20th century. There, she was to be “civilized” and trained as a maid. But instead of giving in to the system, she decided to use it to her advantage — to use her schooling as a springboard to a university degree and, ultimately, to achieve what white people consider professional success.

In Viola Martinez, California Paiute: Living in Two Worlds, Diana Meyers Bahr uses Martinez’s own words, exposing both the pride and the confusion of a woman who lost her native language and has asked herself questions such as, “How is my brain different from a white person’s brain?” Martinez pushed to see how much higher education an Indian woman could attain in the 1930s, reunited herself with long-lost kin and then worked to improve cultural education in inner-city Los Angeles.

Now a revered tribal elder, Martinez calls herself an urban Indian. From the trim, palm tree-dotted boarding school to dusty Owens Valley, Viola Martinez is truly a trip between white and Indian worlds, and a chance to see history — Los Angeles’ water wars, the Sierra’s Basque sheepherders and the local Japanese internment camp — through the eyes of an articulate Paiute woman.

Viola Martinez, California Paiute: Living in Two Worlds
by Diana Meyers Bahr.
202 pages, hardcover: $29.95.
University of Oklahoma Press, 2003.