Jewell James and Art as Activism
by Kathryn Fentress
Kathryn Fentress and her husband moved to Bellingham 20 years ago for the water, trees, fresh air and mountains. She is a psychologist in private practice and believes that spirit is everything. Living in harmony with nature reflects a reverence for life. She delights in finding and meeting those people whose stories so inspire all of us.
Jewell Praying Wolf James is enrolled at Lummi and was raised on the Reservation by his grandparents. He is currently the director of the Lummi Sovereignty and Treaty Protection Office and has been a lifelong activist in efforts to protect forests, rivers and the Salish Sea and salmon habitat. After the 9/11 attacks, he carved three totem poles to honor the victims and these are now stand in Sterling Forest north of Manhattan, in Shanksville, PA, and in the Congressional Cemetery in Washington, D.C. He is the subject of the documentary, “Jewell James: Walking in Two Worlds,” which focuses on his commitment to building bridges of understanding between tribes, and between tribes and the federal government and state agencies dedicated to environmental preservation and restoration. He is a man of many talents and great vision. Here I choose to put the lens on his use of art as a focus for political change.
He is the head of the House of Tears Carvers and a long-time leader of the Lummi Indian Nation (http://www.lummi-nsn.org/website/index2.html.) In the past two years, he organized two totem pole journeys to bring attention to the shipping of coal and new oil pipelines that would endanger the land and people along the pathways. In 2013, the journey was 1,700 miles to Wyoming and British Columbia. In 2014, the journey went from South Dakota to the Salish Sea and north to Alberta. The purposes are many: to give people hope, to provide a focus for media attention, to provide a symbol of courage and standing up for our rights, and to honor and support other tribes and organizations who are working to protect the environment.
Kathryn Fentress: Did you start carving as a child?
Jewell Praying Wolf James: No — actually, it was my younger brother Dale that was trained to be a carver. He was funded by the Ford Foundation through the Whatcom Museum. He and three other young men were selected to be taught by the Native carvers Maury Alexander and Edward Charles. I was married, had a child, and was on my way to Seattle to the University of Washington in 1972 when I stopped off to see my family. Dale showed me this carving he was working on, and I was shocked because I thought it was ugly. He was so proud of it, I told him it was good. He liked that and ran back inside to work on it. I realized I didn’t really know what I was looking at. So I decided right then that I would study the art and began to research the styles and the stories.
I took two courses under Marvin Oliver, a master carver who was teaching at the University of Washington. I caught on to it really quickly, and Marvin wanted me to apprentice with him. I told him I was set to study political science with a plan to go into law. I ended up with a degree in political science and one in psychology. After my divorce, I went off to California to law school, but my Tribe called me back to assist with issues of sovereignty with the U.S. government. Throughout all the following years I continued to work with Dale. He went on to become a master of the art. His last piece is at the Western Washington University library.
How do you get funding for the totem pole journeys?
We hold our breath, and we reach out and seek donations. The 9/11 journey was all paid for by several tribes. The totem pole journeys have been paid for by donations. Sometimes the Tribal Council has supported us and sometimes not; we go forward anyway.
Our goal of these journeys is help others access more information and help communication between the various environmental organizations. We help link the tribes across the country and the tribes with the faith community. We were amongst the Sioux and heard their concerns about the killing of the Missouri River, and the Yakima people are concerned about the killing of the Columbia River. The Spokane Tribe is concerned about the dying of the Spokane River. Here we are seeing the dying of the Nooksack River because of the clear cutting and the damage upriver from industrial and farm waste that is going into the river. The Fraser River in British Columbia and the Athabascan Rivers are endangered from the pollution. Because of the silver mine catastrophe up there last year, 40-60 percent of the salmon runs have been destroyed (Patagonia Alliance Newsletter August 2014).
The totem poles are a symbol of something that all of us have within us. We have the power to heal, the power to love each other, the power to unite — that’s what the symbol is about. The totem pole [itself] isn’t a sacred thing; it’s the sacredness of love joining us together (http://lafayette.edu/rel101-sp12/tag/jewel-prayng-wolf-james.) If we believe in God, then it seems to me that we need to protect the world that He created.
Right now I am finishing up two pieces on commission for two tribes. Then I will start the pole for the next totem pole journey that will go to Lame Deer Reservation next summer. If we create a pole for money, then we have to make one for charity. Our people believe that we have to share the gifts we are given by the Creator, or we will lose them. My work at this point is not the most beautiful, but it gets the message across. When I grow up, I may become a master, and for now I am having a lot of fun practicing.
How do you keep yourself strong for this kind of work?
We’re members of the Native Church and the spirit society that is traditional here, and we also do sweat lodge ceremony sometimes during the year.
What message would you like to share with our readers?
We are all shocked about police brutality. There are the demonstrations now and the staffers who are walking out. It used to be the media could choose not to report, but they can’t hide behind censorship anymore since everyone with a cell phone can report things that are going on. News can go global now. The more people are aware of the threats against their health and that of their children, the better they are able to respond.
All we need is for the little people to get in touch with their senators and representatives. They don’t really want the form-letters; a petition or letter signed by 20,000 people online is significant, but they tend to dismiss form-letters. A unique letter from someone’s heart is what really makes a difference. People need to be responsible, and it is our constitutional duty to speak up.
I think that it is our duty to participate. People are joining different movements and these are supported by people who are communicating by cell phones or IPADs to oppose the corporations. The corporations have unlimited money to hire experts to say whatever they want them to say. People are feeling they are confronting the big beast, but it is only a beast if we don’t resist or vote against them. Once we get some of these politicians out of office, the next ones coming in will pay more attention.
Heartfelt thanks go out to Jewel James for sharing his vision, his gifts and his art to educate, create connections among all people, and to honor our shared environment. For more information, please see Jewell’s Opinion Letter in The Bellingham Herald, 8/11/2014, and Totem Pole Journeys on the web.