“Bill Tsi’li’xw James, hereditary chief of the Lummi people, was a teacher of culture, language and art who passed on teachings until his last breath.
Sharp in his mind until his passing June 1 at age 75 from a hereditary liver disease, Chief James was stood up as hereditary chief of the Lummi People in 2010, a role for which he was selected and groomed by the heads of Lummi families as a young man. He grew into a formidable spokesman for his people on the front lines of some of the most important fights of a generation, including a successful campaign in 2016 with tribes and their allies to block construction of the largest coal port in North America at Cherry Point.
He brought his people’s culture and way of life to the fight to save the southern resident orca whales from extinction, explaining to an uninitiated public that the orcas are not just black-and-white wildlife, but relatives of the Lummi people. He similarly fought for salmon and the Salish Sea and to protect the ancestors at the ancient village at Cherry Point, not just in everyday terms of land use, but sovereignty.
“He had a way of sharing that, so other people would understand the importance of our way of life to us,” said Raynell Zuni, senior policy adviser in the Lummi Nation Office of Sovereignty and Treaty Protection.
It was the Lummi way of life, and the old values he learned from his elders that Chief, as he was called, was so committed to passing on. He knew the genealogy of the families, the ceremonies, and the protocols. He taught not only the Lummi language, but also the old values bound up in it. Learning the language from Bill James was about more than just taking a class. It was about learning deeply who the Lummi people are, and carrying that walk on into the future.
“He spent his lifetime building his capacity to be able to pass on the Lummi language and values of his elders to the next generation,” said Sharon Kinley, a Lummi tribal elder and the dean of indigenous education at the Coast Salish Institute at Northwest Indian College. She grew up with Chief James and remembers that even when young, he was investing time in the company of his elders. Learning.
“He never lost his focus in preserving the language and culture.”
As he grew into his role as chief, he remained similarly disciplined. “He wasn’t about building his image, it was never about him,” Kinley said. “It was about teaching the old values. It is not an easy thing to do, not put your ego in front, not make it about you. It was always clear to him, what matters, and it wasn’t him having an image or having a photo op.”
And like his mother, the late Fran James, his hands were always busy, weaving cedar bark and wool. Blankets, shawls, capes, hats, scarves, baskets, headbands and more poured out of the tiny house they shared by the bay, where on a sunny day the wool his mother washed might be drying on the deck.
Inside the sitting room there nearly always were students pounding or shredding cedar bark, and the spinning wheel made from simple parts scavenged from the hardware store stood at the ready. Whether on handmade yew needles passed on from their elders or made on a loom, the pieces the two made helped sustain a culture of weaving that was almost lost.
Chief James and his mother loved to pile their works into their PT Cruiser and hit the road to enjoy the revival of weaving they helped inspire all over the Northwest on both sides of the border, at weavers’ shows and art fairs, anywhere weavers gathered.
In the 1960s, just a handful of people in B.C. and Washington were still weaving, recalled Barbara Brotherton, curator of Native American art at the Seattle Art Museum, which has also displayed his weaving. “It was such an endangered art form.
“It is through their efforts on the state side that mountain-goat weaving and sheep-wool weaving never died out.”
“Bill was a teacher of all and was a gentle, yet strong voice for the Lummi people,” Gov. Jay Inslee said in a written statement. “He holds a place alongside other transformative tribal leaders that preceded him in death such as Billy Frank Jr., Stan Jones Sr. and many others.
“Bill helped young people in tribal communities to have a deeper connection to their ancestry and their cultures. He raised awareness of native art and language and his legacy will live on for generations.”
Even before he took his position as chief, because of his teachings and deep cultural knowledge, Chief James was a source of guidance to generations of leaders on the reservation. “I was so grateful to be able to turn to him,” said Jay Julius, a former chairman at Lummi. “He was one of the most important policy advisers ever to walk Indian Country. He was my rock all through leadership, he gave you that spiritual grounding when you felt lost. He had a powerful presence but he also just had that peaceful way about him.
“He was a chief of love and a chief of peace.”