By Mary Fifield
After an usually dry summer in Olympia, Washington, a welcoming rain greeted Yakama Nation elder Levina Wilkins, Hereditary Chief of the Lummi Nation Tsi’li’xw (Bill James), and 35 people who came from Oregon, California, and Washington state to gather around a consecrated fire. The group listened as Levina and Bill shared stories of their upbringing, the elders that cared for and guided them, and the traditions that they pass on to young people today.
Levina, who was awarded the Fran James Cultural Preservation award by the Potlatch Fund, spoke of her grandmother, who taught Levina the importance of speaking and living the Sahaptin language of her people. Levina has dedicated her life to teaching young people and instilling in them the virtues of the Yakama Nation, among which are Yách’unal—courage. Her own life has been an expression of this virtue. She shared a story of standing up to a college administrator who discriminated against her because she is Native American. She believed in herself, found encouragement from another Native woman in the university, and achieved a master’s degree in education, which has helped her inspire other women to preserve Yakama culture.
Bill is a Master Weaver who learned weaving from his mother, Fran James, for whom the Potlatch award is named, and together they have helped revive and continue this important tradition. Amidst intermittent squalls that gave way to glorious sunshine, Bill talked about the importance of knowing where we come from, both through our human ancestors and the “spirit of place,” which are interconnected. Bill told a story of his people’s place, Orcas Island and the Salish Sea: an orphaned boy discovers the people who live under the sea—the orcas—and leaves his home to join them, but he returns as an orca to care for his human grandmother, leaving fish on the shore for her. This reminds us that while we seem separate from each other, we are not.
The stories, the crackling of burning wood, the chirping of frogs, the patter of rain, and the space between the words created an experience where people connected to the knowledge of the heart and the land. Through their wisdom and their presence, Levina and Bill provided an example of how to weave together the parts that are fragmented within us, and the fire generated warmth and light to help us remember these ancestral truths.