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 had this little bicycle and he would go over to these different old people’s houses, and follow them around, and ask them questions until he had tired them out,” Kinley said. “That is how he learned and built his capacity. They appreciated someone who wanted to learn.
“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.
He was a generous teacher, packing his loom to demonstrate techniques at venues including the Burke Museum of History and Culture, home to 18 pieces of weaving and basketry by Bill or Fran James or both together.
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.”
The governor of Washington joined tribal leaders around the region in remember and celebrating Bill James.
“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.”
Born Oct. 20, 1944, Chief James went only partway through formal schooling before he was forced to leave home and attend boarding school in New Mexico, as was common during his generation. He was predeceased by his brother and father, and lived as a bachelor with his mother.
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.”
But Chief James also loved to laugh and have fun. Anyone who knew him well was familiar with the twinkle in his eye that meant they were about to be teased. And as devoted as he was to the old ways, Chief James also was a fluent user of social media and technology. He used FaceTime to keep teaching language during the coronavirus stay-home order.
When it came time to design the cultural gallery at the new Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture in Seattle, curators turned to Chief James for the words that frame the entrance to the exhibit: “Xechit-en schaleche l’en-tengexw: Know your relatives and where they are from.” A mountain-goat wool blanket woven by Fran and Bill James hangs with it, in a spectacular floor-to-ceiling display.
The museum showcased those words and blanket because they stood for what the Burke wanted to represent, a living culture, said Sven Haakanson, associate professor in the department of anthropology at the University of Washington and curator of North American anthropology at the Burke.
It was his generosity, too, that the Burke wanted to celebrate. “He stood for inclusivity and respecting everybody, that sparkle in his eye you get from a real leader, to me that was really powerful,” Haakanson said. “He was humble; it wasn’t about himself, it was about sharing his culture and making sure it is carried forward in the next generation.”
With his death, what is so clear is how much Chief James leaves behind.
For his memorial service, Chief James had a special request: that the Lummi Nation Blackhawk Singers, comprising students and graduates of the Lummi Nation K-12 school, sing in the Lummi language. “He never missed one of their performances,” Kinley said. “When he heard them sing in Lummi language, it made all of his work seem worthwhile.”
For Chief James was, above all, a teacher.
Chief James is survived by an aunt, many cousins, many nieces and nephews and other relatives. A private service honoring his life will be held Friday at the Lummi Reservation. In lieu of flowers, contributions are requested to the Bill James memorial fund.