James, Bill (1944-2020)

  • By Rosette Royale
  • Posted 7/18/2016
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 11252

Bill James, a Lummi textile and basket weaver, environmental activist, and tribal historian, absorbed the artistic and cultural traditions of his tribe as a means to both revitalize Coast Salish weaving and halt the loss of the Lummi language. Born in 1944 in Bellingham, he grew up in poverty on the Lummi Reservation in Northwest Washington. He attended a nearby high school until his disagreements with teachers over a culturally insensitive curriculum led him to drop out. Federal Indian officials shipped him to a boarding school for the arts in New Mexico, where he grew curious about his own tribe's artistic practices. Returning to the Lummi Reservation in the early 1960s, he apprenticed with Native weavers and taught himself Coast Salish-style textile weaving on a loom, using wool spun by his mother, Fran James (1925-2013). He and his mother also undertook basketweaving. Their crafts became the focus of art-gallery exhibits and are in the collection of the Burke Museum. James taught weaving and language on the reservation, and created a dictionary of the Lummi language. In his 70s, until his death in 2020, he continued to weave and teach, along with helping his tribe fight environmental pollution on and near the reservation.

In the Realm of the Ancient Ones

William James (Lummi name T'silixw) was born October 20, 1944, in Bellingham, Whatcom County, to Norbert Wilford James Jr. (1924-1990) and Frances James, both members of the Lummi Nation. The Lummi Reservation sits just west of Bellingham on the shores of Bellingham and Lummi bays, and the new parents brought their son home to a house near the mouth of the Nooksack River, to a place called Stó:lo Village.

His childhood home had no running water, so the family relied on the reservation's one public faucet. But the lack of running water didn't keep rain from running into the house. Indeed, during the rainy season, mud became a regular yet unwanted guest, and the family had to wash the mud down a hole in the floor. Mold and mildew took up residence, a reality the family counteracted by drying the home with heated stoves. The stoves also proved essential during the frigid winters. "Our wood stoves were red hot trying to keep our houses warm. I remember going to bed, I had so many blankets on me, pillows on my head, I couldn't move," James recalled (Royale interview).

Family members all pitched in to keep everyone fed, working to dig clams and harvest crabs, while father Norbert focused on hunting ducks. In the spring, they gathered salmonberry sprouts; in the summer, efforts turned to catching and filleting King salmon, the majority of which was smoked or salted. James's grandmother, who lived nearby, canned fruits, vegetables and salmon. When wintertime arrived, the family dined on stored edibles, making a meal of boiled potatoes, salt salmon, and white gravy.

For its livelihood, the family again looked to the natural world. Norbert's prowess as a hunter extended to mammals as well, and he caught beaver, muskrat, and mink to sell their pelts. He taught the young Bill how to stretch the hides to dry over circular frames. Meanwhile, Frances focused on tending sheep, animals she had grown up with on a farm on nearby Portage Island. She was a master shearer, and Bill would watch, spellbound, as she grabbed hold of the animals and, with shears, clipped their wool till it fell to the ground in one large fleece.

In his free time, Bill played with village children, venturing into the woods on the reservation, sometimes paddling a cedar skiff in search of summer fruit. He also spent time with Lummi elders, listening to their stories of the ancestors, the "Ancient Ones," who were on the land, on the sea, in the sky (Royale interview). Though he didn't know it at the time, the stories and teachings of his elders would help shape his destiny. He got an early inkling while doing the one thing all young people are required to do: go to school.

Destiny Comes Knocking

While some of the teachings Bill absorbed as a child were the recollections of tribal members, others were Lummi creation stories, which placed the people and beings that lived along the Salish Sea in a cultural context. But creation stories weren't exclusive to the Lummi. The state of Washington came with its own tales of how the land became the 42nd state in the union, of how white settlers interacted with the Natives they encountered.

Bill often heard these stories as a student at Ferndale High School. In the 1950s, school officials made Native students sit in the back of the classroom, and Bill sat at his desk listening to teachers offer history lessons that didn't jibe with recollections and stories passed down by his elders. Disturbed, James raised his hand. "I tried to argue with the teachers. I tried. Pretty soon, I got a D. And pretty soon I got a F. Pretty soon I got a X, because of not agreeing with what they were doing." He realized he couldn't get through to his teachers and that he couldn't fight the system. "So I quit school, halfway through the 11th grade" (Royale interview).

For a month, Bill stayed at home, happy his confrontations with teachers had ended. Then, one day, there was a knock at the door. His mother opened it to find an unknown man outside. She asked who he was. He said he was from the Bureau of Indian Affairs, there to ensure that if Bill didn't want to go to school in Ferndale, he'd be sent out of state to a boarding school. "So, bammm, before you know it, I was on a train going to New Mexico. I went to Santa Fe, to the Institute of American Indian Art" (Royale interview).

There, he learned about Navajo artistic traditions, the different types of weaving and dyes used by the Southwest tribe. A fellow student at the school was also from the Northwest, and one day Bill asked him: What about our own weaving? Who are we as a people?

When Bill returned to the Lummi Reservation, he began to search out information that could give him a sense of his tribe's traditional weaving. But books could only teach him so much. He needed a hands-on approach, and his hands soon found it, in part, by pushing a broom.

The Calling of the Loom

At the time, there were Lummi tribal members who practiced what is known as Scandinavian, or Norwegian, weaving, creating tightly woven cotton items, such as wallets, for sale. The group of women were hard workers, and they needed someone to help keep the place clean. James got a job as their janitor.

That placed him in close proximity to them several days a week, and he watched their fingers at the loom. Sometimes, when the weavers had too much work, they'd seek Bill's assistance: Can you help unwind this? Can you hold that? Can you loosen this thread? Eventually, one of the weavers invited him to sit at a loom. He jumped at chance. Within moments, he had the hang of it.

But Norwegian weaving differed from Lummi weaving. His tribe used wool, not cotton; traditional tribal dyes produced muted, natural colors; and Lummi people wove on a different style of loom. At home, James thought about the images of his tribe's style of weaving. One day, he sat down and built his own simple upright loom. Sure, it was a little rickety, but he found it worked. So even as he spent his days helping women with Scandinavian weaving, at home, he practiced his tribe's style of weaving. He had discovered a calling.

But to weave, he needed wool, and for this, he had a familial connection: his mother. Fran's early life on a sheep farm meant not only could she shear sheep, she could wash, card, and spin wool. Bill tapped his mother to provide the raw material. She obliged. "She spun all the yarn ... for everything that I did. She was my number-one spinner" (Royale interview).

Their creative relationship stretched on for decades, and its impact led to a renaissance in Coast Salish weaving.

Warp and Weft

At first, Bill wove and Fran spun because it was tied to their tribal heritage -- and they found it fun. She was used to spinning sheep wool in a fine thread, but Bill thought their creations would work better with a thicker wool. He suggested she increase the thread's heft, a request that took her a while to master.

Together, they found their rhythm, and in the winter months Fran would spin and spin, while Bill would weave. He could produce six to eight inches of woven material a day, with a blanket done in five days. "And I'd get one done, we'd do another one, do another. And I had eight blankets done over the winter" (Royale interview).

As the spinning and weaving continued, people took notice. Mostly, other tribal members saw their creations and started to ask if, perhaps, they could have this blanket or that shawl. But people from outside the tribe sought them out as well. Vi Hilbert (1918-2008), the Upper Skagit tribal member who dedicated her life to preserving Lushootseed culture, acquired numerous blankets they made, one of which she often wore in photos taken later in her life. Representatives of cultural institutions like the Burke Museum in Seattle also called on Bill and Fran to have their creations held in museum collections. And one of their blankets was acquired by Pope John Paul VI.

In March 1989, the Burke began a six-month exhibit called A Time of Gathering: Native Heritage in Washington State. More than 400 artifacts were displayed, including a traditional blanket Bill and Fran created from mountain-goat wool, said to be the first blanket of its kind woven in 50 years. For the exhibit, the Burke commissioned Bill and his mother to create a number of cedar-bark and root baskets. Decades later, in October 2008, the Seattle Art Museum showcased the same mountain-goat wool item, on loan from the Burke, in an exhibit called S'abadeb -- The Gifts: Pacific Coast Salish Arts and Artists.

Bringing a Native Tongue Back to Native People

Some of the woven items Bill and his mother made they sold, at sheep-to-shawl shows throughout Puget Sound or to people they knew. They split the money from sales, which James used to supplement his income. Throughout his weaving career he held a number of jobs, including teaching at Lummi Day School. At first, he taught basketweaving, but then he began to teach the language.

In the early years of the twentieth century, many Lummi young people were sent to boarding schools where speaking their language was illegal. As they grew up, their native language began to fade, so much so that they couldn't teach it to their descendants. For years, his tribe tried to recapture its traditions and, in 2007, James was invited to visit the University of Arizona. There, linguistics professor Elizabeth Bowman and student Richard Demers had audiotapes of Lummi elders speaking. They wondered if perhaps James would like to hear them?

Prior to the visit, James had been trying to use symbols from the International Phonetics Alphabet to pass on the Lummi language, but he found that when most tribal members read the written symbols, they struggled to understand them. At the university, he was asked why he used that alphabet. Why not teach it in a way the tribe would understand? He returned with copies of the recordings, along with a desire to create a more accessible phonetics alphabet for his tribe. So he wrote the first Lummi dictionary, a copy of which he continued to keep in his house. "[It's] still the first edition," James said in 2016, "I don't have time to do any more" (Royale interview).

James's affiliation with Demers continued, and the two edited a traditional Lummi story for the 2008 anthology Salish Myths and Legends. The story, called "Ch'eni, the Giant Woman Who Stole Crying Children," was recorded in 1972 when Demers interviewed a Lummi elder. It recounts the tale of a woman who tempted crying children with salmon as a means to capture them. "She was preparing to bake the children. She was going to roast the children for food" (Salish Myths, 107-109). But one of the children outwits her, enlisting other kidnapped youth to push the woman into the flames. Lice from her body flies into the air.

James also served as chairman for the tribe's cultural committee, and he realized he had to do more than help preserve the language. He wanted to ensure the tribe maintained the environmental health and cultural legacy of its land.

Holding On to a 'Lifeline'

In his youth, James had learned the land where the Lummi lived along the Salish Sea was sacred, that it provided sustenance for the people. His elders had taught him it was his duty to protect the land, especially an area that served as herring spawning grounds as well as the tribe's ancestral burial ground. The Lummi called this area, which is located on the shore some miles north of the reservation, Xwe'chi'eXen, but to people who spoke English it was known as Cherry Point. And it was prized by people who weren't members of the tribe.

On February 28, 2011, SSA Marine, a Seattle-based cargo-handling company, submitted preliminary documents to Whatcom County for permitting construction of a coal-export terminal at Cherry Point. To be called the Gateway Pacific Terminal, it would move "up to 48 million metric tons of coal a year ... Every 18 hours, ships, many nearly three football fields long, would load up on coal at the 3,000-foot-long wharf" (Mapes). The submission of documents initiated an environmental review process, which included a period of public comments.

The Lummi Nation spoke out against the proposed coal terminal, stating that in the "Treaty of Point Elliott of 1855, the Lummi Nation reserved the right to harvest marine resources here and elsewhere in its usual and accustomed territory" (Walker). In 2015, the tribe asked the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to deny SSA Marine its permit to build the coal-export terminal because its construction would violate the treaty. As the tribe's hereditary chief, Bill James called Xwe'chi'eXen "a revered place that is the home of the Ancient Ones" ("Lummi Nation Scoping Comments," 4). By January 2016, numerous Northwest tribes had aligned with the Lummi to decry the terminal.

For James, saving the land carried a personal importance. "My mom and I used to fish right here. We're going to lose all those places like this. But we have to hang on to what we have" (Thornton). It also had relevance for the tribe. James explained, "We have to do this because it's our lifeline of our people. The water is our lifeline. The land is our lifeline. The air is our lifeline" (Royale interview). He predicted that, ultimately, SSA Marine would fail in its attempts to build a terminal.

In the spring of 2016, Bill was proved correct. On April 1, "SSA Marine, which retains a 51 percent ownership of the project, said ... it was halting the environmental review while it waits for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to make a decision on the treaty rights of the Lummi Tribe" ("Environmental review ..."). A month later, on May 9, the Army Corps of Engineers denied SSA Marine and its subsidiary the necessary permit to construct the terminal. Speaking in Lummi Indian Business Council chambers, Colonel John Buck, commander of the Army Corps of Engineers Seattle District, said, "The Corps may not permit a project that abrogates treaty rights," as tribal members "cheered the announcement" (Wohlfeil).

In his 70s, Bill James continued to weave, using skeins of wool that Fran spun before her death in 2013. As the hereditary tribal chief, he taught the Lummi language to tribal youth by using a video app on a handheld tablet. Guests paid regular visits to the house he shared with his mother. He spoke at tribal functions and reminded members how important it is to protect their land and treaty rights. James died in 2020 surrounded by family and friends. In a 2016 interview, he took pride that state schools, including Ferndale, where he had difficult interactions with teachers, now use curriculum that embraces the Native point of view. He saw it as an important change: "This was my biggest opponent in life, this Washington state history" (Royale interview).


Rosette Royale interview with Bill James, February 15, 2016, Lummi Indian Reservation, transcript in possession of Rosette Royale, Seattle; A Time of Gathering: Native Heritage in Washington State ed. by Robin K. Wright (Seattle: Burke Museum and University of Washington Press, 1991), 97; Deloris Tarzan Ament, "Burke's Native Artifacts Evoke the Past," The Seattle Times, March 29, 1989, p. C-1; Sheila Farr, "A Rare Glimpse of NW Tribes' Culture -- Seattle Art Museum Coast Salish Art from Both Sides of Border Illuminates Ancient, Living Heritage," Ibid., October 19, 2008, p. A-1; Lynda V. Mapes, "Northwest Tribes Unite," Ibid., January 17, 2016, p. A-1; "Environmental Review for Coal Port on Hold," Ibid., April 2, 2016, p. B-1; "Ch'eni, the Giant Woman Who Stole Crying Children" ed. by Richard Demers and Bill James, in Salish Myths and Legends: One People's Stories ed. by M. Terry Thompson and Steven M. Egesdal (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2008); John Stark, "Gateway Pacific Terminal at Cherry Point Starts Permit Process," The Bellingham Herald, March 1, 2011 (http://www.bellinghamherald.com/news/local/article22203096.html#ixzz1FPb9Pknd); Samantha Wohlfeil, "Army Corps Rejects Permit for Coal Terminal at Cherry Point," Ibid., May 9, 2016 (http://www.bellinghamherald.com/news/local/article76545117.html); Richard Walker, "Lummi Chairman: We Will Fight Coal Terminal 'By All Means Necessary,'" Indian Country Today Media Network, August 24, 2015 (http://indiancountrytodaymedianetwork.com/2015/08/24/lummi-chairman-we-will-fight-coal-terminal-all-means-necessary-161503); "Lummi Nation Scoping Comments: Proposed Gateway Pacific Terminal Bulk Dry Goods Shipping Facility (Ref. No. NWS-2008-260) and the Custer Spur Rail Expansion (Ref. No. NWS-20110325) Projects, January 15, 2013," copy available at Coal Train Facts website accessed July 18, 2016 (http://www.coaltrainfacts.org/docs/Lummi_Scoping_Comments.pdf); Daniel Thornton, "Chief Bill James: Lummi Nation's Fight Against a Coal Terminal" (video), Vimeo website accessed April 6, 2016 (https://vimeo.com/103149296); Sydney Brownstone, "Teaching Tribal History is Finally Required in Washington Public Schools," The Stranger, June 24, 2015 (http://www.thestranger.com/news/feature/2015/06/24/22438654/teaching-tribal-history-is-finally-required-in-washington-public-schools). Note: This entry was updated on June 7, 2020. 

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