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Richard Walker

Special to Indian Country Today

A university once offered Bill Tsi’li’xw James an honorary PhD but the hereditary chief declined it, recalled Shirley Williams, Lummi, on June 3.

There was nothing a university degree could give Tsi’li’xw that was more valuable than what he had received from his culture, Williams said. “He didn’t need it. He was a PhD in his own right.”

Tsi’li’xw was a master weaver and a master of the Lummi language. He had an encyclopedic knowledge of Lummi history; his cultural knowledge informed his unwavering stands on tribal sovereignty, the environment, and protection of sacred places. And he dedicated much of his life to passing on his cultural knowledge to others.

“He lived up to his responsibility as our chief every day, responding with kindness to each request for time, information and guidance,” said Lummi Nation Chairman Lawrence Solomon in a statement released by his office. “He had a gentle way of speaking that still conveyed the importance of the knowledge he shared. When he spoke, people listened with patience and a thirst for what he had to share.”

Solomon added, “He also carried the wisdom and knowledge of our traditional names and took part in many naming ceremonies.”

Tsi’li’xw died June 1, 2020 after a long illness. He was 75.

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee and his wife, Trudi Inslee, said they joined Tsi’li’xw’s family, the Lummi Nation and all Coast Salish nations in mourning the chief’s passing.

“Bill was a teacher of all and was a gentle, yet strong voice for the Lummi people. 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,” Gov. Inslee said. "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."

Flags were lowered to half-staff on the Lummi Reservation and many offices were closed out of respect. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, attendance would be limited at the chief’s memorial service on June 5, which would take place on the sports field at Lummi Nation School, and the service would be livestreamed.

Recognizing that many would not be able to attend the service because of the pandemic, the family allowed a Facebook page to be created as a space “where we can share the good thoughts and medicine he provided our people,” coordinator Becky Kinley, Lummi, wrote. “The memories and words will be cherished forever in our hearts, minds and spirit.” The tribute page would be closed in three days -- a melding of tradition and modern technology -- and photos shared on the page would be used in a legacy video to be produced later. A “Chief Tsi'li'xw Hy'shqe Fund” was established in the chief’s honor through the Lhaqtemish Foundation.

Hy'shqe is the Lummi word for "thank you."

Tributes poured in from far and near – including the Tulalip Tribes to the south; the Tlingit First Nation to the north; and the Penelakut First Nation, where he has relatives, to the west.

Tsi’li’xw was born in Bellingham, Washington, on October 20, 1944 to Norbert James Jr. and the former Frances Lane. His great-grandfather, Peter James, was chairman of the Duwamish Tribe from 1917-1945.

Tsi’li’xw grew up in a Lummi Sto:lo village near the mouth of the Nooksack River. At an early age, “He dedicated his life to learning from his elders about our history, language and culture,” Solomon said. “He knew the importance of capturing the life experience and knowledge of our ancestors.”

With his family, Tsi’li’xw dug clams and harvested crab, fished for salmon, and gathered salmonberries. His grandfather and his uncles, born in the late 1800s, were his earliest teachers. “I was privileged to hear them talk in the language years ago,” Tsi’li’xw said during the Northwest Indian College Salish Sea Speaker Series in 2019. “I was privileged to hear them speak all the time in the language. They told their stories of who we are and where we come from and why we are the way we are today.

“I listened to them talk about some of the creation stories of years ago -- the creation of the animals, the birds, the trees, the mountains, the fish, the people, how everything was created. Many, many stories I learned from them. I listened to them talk about the stories of the Star People, the stories of the people that live under the water and the stories of the people that live under the ice. There are many, many stories that our people handed down that I heard years ago.”

Bill Tsi'li'qw James, hereditary Lummi chief, addresses the community May 22, 2014 at the Lummi Nation First Salmon Ceremony. (Photo courtesy of Northwest Treaty Tribes)

His mother, known by her Native name Che to pie, came from a long line of basket weavers, and while a teenager Tsi’li’xw’s great-aunt taught him how to weave baskets in the traditional Coast Salish way.

He attended Ferndale High School but dropped out because of how teachers interpreted his people’s history. He was sent by the Bureau of Indian Affairs to the Institute of American Indian Art in Santa Fe, New Mexico, where he was introduced to Navajo, or Diné, weaving. It whet his appetite to learn more about Coast Salish weaving techniques.

He returned to the Lummi Reservation in the early 1960s and apprenticed with Native weavers. He began Coast Salish-style weaving on a loom, using wool spun by his mother. He and his mother also undertook basket weaving, using cedar fibers, bear grass, cattails and mountain goat wool.

They mastered basket weaving and wool weaving, and over the next 40 years their works would become the focus of art gallery exhibits and acquired for museum collections. Their works helped tell the story of their people. They created baskets that, like those of the ancestors, were both utilitarian and prized as heirlooms; and blankets and shawls that were exhibit-worthy.

“Weaving, to me personally, is — as I look at it — weaving the fabric of our lives together. Remembering what used to be and what is being lost,” Tsi’li’xw told Stonington Gallery, a prominent downtown Seattle gallery specializing in Indigenous art.

“I utilize my natural resource, my mother -- Che-to-pie Fran James -- who has been a spinner of wools for all my life. If it weren’t for her, I might not be doing what we are doing. Time marches on and people don’t do things like what we used to do. We take pride in what we do, and are glad people appreciate what we do,” Tsi’li’xw said.

Tsi’li’xw and his mother’s teachings were intertwined with teachings about how to live in a good way. Within their teachings “existed a worldview based on reciprocity,” according to Northwest Indian College, where Tsi’li’xw taught weaving and wool spinning. “They taught how to approach weaving materials of cedar, bear grass, cattails and mountain goat wool in a sacred way: with prayers of gratitude -- in their language -- as an integral form of exchange.”

In 1991, Tsi’li’xw and his mother were awarded the Peace and Friendship Award from the Washington State Capitol Museum for their contributions to Lummi culture.

Environmental advocate and culture bearer

In the 2000s, Tsi’li’xw focused more attention on the Lummi language, or Xwlemi Chosen. He visited the University of Arizona in 2007 and obtained copies of audiotapes of Lummi elders, created a phonetics alphabet for the Lummi language and wrote the first Lummi dictionary. The following year, he edited the traditional Lummi story, “Ch’eni, the Giant Woman Who Stole Crying Children,” for the anthology “Salish Myths and Legends: One People’s Stories” that was published by the University of Nebraska Press.

His knowledge of the language and of sacred places made him a formidable figure in efforts to protect the environment.

In 2011, a Seattle-based cargo-handling company proposed building a coal-export terminal at Cherry Point, an area within Lummi territory that supports marine and intertidal life considered crucial to the health of the Salish Sea.

As Tsi’li’xw spoke in defense of Cherry Point, he helped others see the place through a Lummi lens: as Xwe'chi'eXen -- its Lummi, or Lhaq’temish, name – which he said is “a revered place that is the home of the Ancient Ones.” A coal-export terminal there would harm marine resources, disturb a sacred place and violate the Lummi Nation’s treaty-reserved rights to fish and protect cultural resources there, he said.

“We have to remember that this is the home of our people,” he said in a 2014 video produced by a relative and documentarian Freddie Xwenang Lane, who is now a Lummi council member. “We have to respect everything in nature that we have provided for us. We have to respect everything because our ancestors are always with us, no matter where we go or what we are doing.”

He added, “Our ancestral burial grounds are not only on the land, but they’re on the water. At Xwe'chi'eXen, the ancestors are there with us.”

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers ultimately denied the permit request.

Likewise, in the Lummi Nation’s efforts to repatriate a captive orca from the Miami Seaquarium, Tsi’li’xw taught that the Xwlemi Chosen name for orca or killer whale is qw’e lh’ol’ me chen, which means “our relations who live under the water.” He said qw’e lh’ol me chen are family and the Lummi people have a sacred obligation to bring the captive orca, whom they know as Tokitae, home. That effort continues.

At the same time, Tsi’li’xw – who was serving as chairman of Lummi Nation’s Cultural Committee -- was helping to guide his people’s reconnection to the San Juan Islands, also within Lummi territory and the place of origin of the Lummi people.

In summer 2015 and 2016, young people from Lummi camped for a week on San Juan Island, as part of a program called Coast Salish Mini-University, to learn about their ancestral ties to the island. They went on nature walks, traveled in canoes upon the waters once traveled by their great-great-grandparents, ate traditional foods from the water, and learned about their language.

They also learned about reef-netting – a type of salmon fishing that was gifted by the Creator to the Lhaq’temish people. In reef-netting, nets are anchored to the sea floor to create an artificial reef that salmon follow into a large scoop net suspended between two canoes. It is considered today to be a most efficient means of fishing.

In 2015, a resident of Henry Island, a stone’s throw from San Juan Island, opened her property to Coast Salish Mini-University. It was on this island, which the Lummi know as Lhelhinqel, that the first ancestor, Sweh-tuhn, emerged. Tsi’li’xw and other representatives of the Lummi Nation conducted a naming ceremony at Lhelhinqel attended by 125 people -- believed to be the first cultural gathering there since the 1800s.

The property owner was so moved that she donated 80 acres to a local land trust with the condition that the Lummi Nation be allowed to use the land for cultural purposes.

In 2016, representatives of the Lummi Nation and the Saanich First Nation installed a Reefnet Captain Totem Pole and two Salmon Story Boards on San Juan Island at Pe'pi'ow'elh, a village site where British Royal Marines established their camp during the U.S.-British territory dispute of 1859-1872. The site is part of San Juan Islands National Historical Park.

This was a healing event. British troops had destroyed a longhouse here to build their encampment, and one early photo shows Coast Salish canoes that returned to find a blockhouse and military barracks.

For a people displaced from the San Juan Islands by the treaty and the settlement era, Williams said the reconnection to the San Juan Islands has been healing – many young people, she said in an earlier interview, did not know of their families’ history there and thought that Lummi people simply “came from the rez.”

She said recently of the reconnection to the San Juan Islands: “If it wasn’t for Tsi’li’xw, it wouldn’t have happened,” she said. “He wanted us to know how important it was for us to remember where we came from.” In the end, “He wished he could have been able to share more.”

In a 2018 video, “Beyond the Blanket: Preserving the Traditions of Lummi Weaving,” produced by the City of Bellingham, Tsi’li’xw spoke of the connection of culture to identity and well-being.

“As we teach our young people today, it’s important that they learn these things to give themselves identity as to who we are as a people,” he said. “That’s most important. Once they find who they are, they will succeed better in both worlds.

“People don’t realize we live in two worlds. In my community here, nobody ever calls me ‘Bill James.’ My name is Tsi’li’xw. A lot of our young people carry their traditional Native names of their ancestors. This gives us identity as to who we are.”

Solomon, the Lummi chairman, said the hereditary chief will continue to influence Lummi culture and the life of the nation.

“Through his stories, love, compassion and teachings, we each carry a little piece of him in our walk of life,” Solomon said. “He will continue to live on through us and especially our youth, while they practice the song and dance he taught them. We will always be reminded of everything he has given us.”

Former Lummi Chairman Darrell Hillaire, a cousin of the late chief, added, “His legacy will live on in many people – the people who are bringing the language back; the people who are carrying on the tradition of weaving; the people who show up, who follow his example of helping others.”

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Richard Arlin Walker, Mexican/Yaqui, is an Indian Country Today contributor reporting from Anacortes, Washington.