Program 304 – Elder Wisdom

Chemawa Indian School small boys dorm, Salem, Oregon. 1901

Chemawa Indian School small boys dorm, Salem, Oregon. 1901. Estelle Reel Collection. Courtesy Eastern Washington State Historical Society.

Russell Jim

with Brian Bull

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Arlie Neskahi:
Yakama elder Russell Jim has traveled the globe, watching indigenous people from around the world struggle to retain their identity and traditions. A board member for the Center for World Indigenous Studies, Jim has learned that in order to save a culture, one can’t sit idly by. One must intervene. For today’s Elder Wisdom, Brian Bull has more:

Brian Bull:
One of nine children, Russell Jim grew up in the Yakama territory near toppenish, Washington along the Yakima river. He learned early on that the course of life is much like a river. People either go with the flow or against the current. Yet when he was much younger, he was swept away in the waves of indian children taken from their families and placed into government boarding schools.

Russell Jim:
When I came home from the Chemawa Indian Boarding School, I described the horror stories to my aunt, and she went to my father and said, “You can send the rest of your children back to that school if you want to. This one is not going.” And she said, “If he has to go to school, you find a place close by here where I can watch him. If you do not, i’ll take him to the hills and you’ll never find us.”

Brian Bull:
Besides helping him escape the hardships of boarding school, Jim’s aunt also shared all she could of the Yakama ways.

Russell Jim:
While I was being raised by my aunt, as I say, we’d travel horseback or by wagon. And we lived between Toppenish and Wapato along the Yakama River. And the closest longhouse was in Wapato, so we’d go there on Sunday mornings. And we’d pull in and there’d be other wagons and horses there. And eventually once in awhile you’d see a pickup and maybe a truck.

And when you went in, the longhouse was full every Sunday. And you listened to these great orations by people, great songs. Many of those songs are not here anymore because the elders took it with them, because some of the younger generations just didn’t learn them. These songs are so sacred ah, when you sing them, you communicate directly with your Maker, because that’s where these songs came from.

Brian Bull:
In his lifetime, Jim has seen some parts of Yakama traditional life forgotten or neglected. He says it’s time now to help young people reconnect with their heritage:

Russell Jim:
As we say, “Without my past, I have no future.” And ours theme here among the Yakama is that we vow to preserve and protect this land as resources for those children yet unborn. That’s our oath, oath of life. People think this is a North American saying, but what it isn’t. It’s from Kenya. And they say, “You do not inherit this land from your ancestors. It is loaned to you by your children.” And I think that’s profound. It’s similar to our thinking.

But our religion remains intact. Our culture remains basically intact, but we are going to lose it if the younger generation do not start speaking the language and understanding. You cannot, the earth cannot hear you if you do not speak to the earth with your native tongue, through the foods and medicines.

And the animals, the animals understand you. They had vowed when the Creator said, “I’m going to make human beings here now, but I need someone to help sustain their life, their bodies, their hearts. And I’m asking you, the First People, if you will help take care of them, which will mean giving your bodies, your life, to them.”

And the first to speak up was the fish, the Salmon. The next was the Deer, then the Elk, then the food out of the ground, and then the berries. And that’s why in our feast we set the food in that order.

And there was a time when, as in a communion, in our First Foods feasts, we’re told as the food is set before us, before anyone else eats, we’re told, “When I name this food, you take a small portion and eat it.” Which we would do when a elder would stand up and said, “This portion of food is going to this part of your body.”

Brian Bull:
Jim’s other mission is keeping the land and its people healthy. Some tribal members fear that the nearby Hanford Nuclear Plant has hurt the salmon run in the Columbia River, and the well-being of the Yakama nation. Jim says more than thirty years ago, he began to suspect a link between the Hanford Plant and higher rates of rheumatoid arthritis among his people.

Hanford Nuclear Plant.

Hanford Nuclear Plant. Courtesy of Online Insider.

Russell Jim:
And during my work here on the Hanford Reservation, I was called by a doctor out of Tennessee and asked if I was the guy that was making this statement. I said, “Yes.” And he said, “Well, I want you to know that,” he studied a mining operation, every types of mining operations for years, and he found that uranium causes a malady very similar to rheumatoid arthritis. But even before that, by 1976 and ’77, I suspect that many of our problems came out of Hanford because of the releases, although they denied there was any major releases out of Hanford.

Brian Bull:
Releases which the Washington State Department of Health says include leakage from radioactive waste holding tanks, discharges of chemicals into the air, and the release of river water that was used to cool hot reactor cores back into the Columbia River Basin.

Russell Jim:
In ’77, in fact, I went to the Indian Health Service and I asked for their assistance. And I was told, in April of ’77, that because of no proof that anything came out of Hanford, the Indian Health Service could not help.

Brian Bull:
Jim said that in 1986, the Yakama nation became the only Tribe to help pen the nuclear waste policy act which determined where to keep all the high level waste. While Hanford was among the nine places proposed, the Tribe convinced energy officials to exlude Hanford as a storage option.

Russell Jim:
But in late February and early March of 1986 they were, the DOE was forced, to release nineteen thousand reclassified documents. And so upon review they had to admit that there was a tremendous amount of releases into the system, into the environment. Not only eight million curies of radioactivity a year going into the Columbia River, but three hundred and forty thousand curies of iodine 131 released into the air in 1945 alone., in 1946 there were 76,000 curies.

Brian Bull:
Jim is focusing his remaining years on preserving natural resources, and instilling tribal youth with interest and respect for their Yakama traditions. While he was spared having his culture wrested away from him by the early 20 th century boarding school system, he doesn’t want others to lose theirs through apathy. He notes that for everything the Yakama nation went through, the Tribe’s spiritual beliefs have endured.

Russell Jim:
And I find that late in life, realizing what my father used to tell me. “Look at yourself once in a while. Observe yourself. Talk to yourself once in awhile. You don’t have to be crazy to talk to yourself.” And when you eventually understand what he means, you begin to realize, you know. “By golly,” you know, “I wonder what I look like in the eyes of other people. Do I act arrogant?” You know, and they know all this. So you become very careful. But that also means you become respectful. We prevail with dignity and integrity much better than a lot of people in this country, as few as we are, in fact.

Brian Bull:
For Wisdom of the Elders, I’m Brian Bull.