WHITE SWAN, Wash. -- A ceremonial air of reverence hung in the air, along with the smoky-sweet after-tinge of burned sage, at the Mt. Adams Community Center in White Swan on Saturday as more than 100 people gathered to release their mourning and honor the life of Russell Jim, a Yakama leader and environmental activist who fought against the unsafe disposal of nuclear waste on reservation land.
The friends and family of Jim, whose Yakama name is Kiaux, have been in mourning for a year, as is respectful among the Yakama tribe: not able to speak his name, look at his picture or read about his many accomplishments in their local newspaper.
The memorial service Saturday allowed them to release death and embrace life once more, and the people’s joy showed. In between bells tinkling, voices raised in prayer, yips and shouts during traditional dancing and drums pounding out honoring songs, tribal members shook hands, hugged, and shared fond memories of the man they knew as their leader.
Jim -- who was born on Nov. 26, 1935, and died on April 7, 2018 -- served in tribal leadership roles for more than 60 years, including eight years serving on the Yakama Tribal Council and as the founder and manager of the tribe’s Environmental Restoration and Waste Management Program.
He is best known for the stance he took against the unsafe disposal of nuclear waste at Hanford, which had been used for more than 40 years as a defense facility where the U.S. Department of Energy had a plutonium production reactor, moderated by graphite -- similar to the one used in Chernobyl. The Yakama reservation lies only 13 miles southwest of Hanford, and the proposed site also encompassed the treaty lands of the Nez Perce of Idaho and the Confederated Umatilla Tribes of Oregon.
Jim spoke before the Senate subcommittee on Nuclear Regulation in January 1980 in Washington, D.C., and at a May 19, 1986, congressional hearing. His comments made senators aware that states would not automatically protect Indian reservations from unwanted nuclear waste, according to news articles on display at Saturday’s memorial. The final legislation recognized tribal sovereignty -- specifically that tribes could decide to veto to accept nuclear waste sites within the tribal land boundaries, regardless of the position taken by the surrounding state, a determination that could be overridden only by a majority vote from both houses of Congress -- and blocked efforts to make Hanford the nuclear waste repository.
Tony Smith, a member of the Nez Perce tribe whose Indian name is Toyaaxin, acknowledged at Saturday’s memorial that Jim’s efforts impacted more than just the Yakama people. Smith presented Jim’s family with a special horse blanket to show that the Nez Perce also honored Jim and his legacy.
“We didn’t always see eye to eye, but we always moved forward together,” Smith said. “We share the responsibility for taking care of this land as best as we can, and with his (Jim’s) speaking ability, he did a lot for the Indian people.”
The morning ceremony before a standing-room-only crowd started out with traditional songs and dancing, prayers to honor the community’s veterans and children, and a passing of portraits of Jim around the space as part of the “rejoining.”
“We’ve invited friends and family here so we’ll do the best we can in this space,” said Jerry Meninick, a Yakama elder who helped emcee the event, while regarding the packed hall. “If you want to dance around outside the building, you can.”
His comment was met with laughter and smiles.
Jim was survived by his wife, Barbara “Bobbie” Jim, two sons, six daughters, 27 grandchildren and 28 great-grandchildren.
Bobbie Jim opened comments from the family by thanking everyone for coming to pay their respects. She announced that she would be donating the cap and gown that Jim wore when he received an honorary doctorate degree from Heritage University in 2017 back to the university, for future graduates to wear at each year’s commencement. She then said that her husband has visited her in her dreams, which, she added, have all been “good.”
“I have tried to be a good widow,” Bobbie Jim said, “ but I look forward now to being released so I can help others again.”
A massive give-away ceremony followed.
Deborah Wahpat, a daughter of Russell Jim's, bequeathed Jim’s heirloom treasures to family members and close friends and shared her memories while a number of helpers circulated around the space’s center aisle, handing out blankets, jewelry, cooking gear, hats, boots, playing cards and “mountain tea” to those in attendance.
“We always had a good time together, no matter what was going on,” Wahpat said. “He used to check on me, open the door for me, bring me groceries or a valentine on Valentine’s Day. As a child, I used to hang on his ankle every time he tried to walk out the door. I’m going to miss those times.”
Other friends and family shared snippets from Jim’s life: that he portrayed a Native American rainmaker in a United Airlines commercial, that he loved eating the “special treat” of an orange on Christmas as a boy, that when he was 5 years old he was sent to Chemawa Indian School -- a boarding school in Oregon where he was forced to sneak under a porch to speak his native Yakama language with other indigenous peers or risk getting beaten.
Another memory, included in the memorial program, mentions that during “horse chasing season” on the Dry Creek range, Jim used to look up at the sky when planes passed by and wonder where they were going.
“Not knowing at this time, that eventually, in the future, someday this cowboy sitting on his beloved horse would be jetting around the world meeting people who would become lifelong friends,” the program continues. “And the foes, who fought against him for the cleanup of nuclear waste, they will forever remember the legacy of this Dry Creek cowboy.”
Benjamin Arquette, one of Jim’s grandsons, said that Jim was responsible for some of his most deeply held beliefs about purpose and life.
“He used to tell me, ‘There’s millions of people in this world, but there is only one you. Respect yourself. Honor yourself. Stay true to your identity,'” Arquette recalled. “Time doesn’t stop. Neither will this belief.”
Bobbie Jim shared memories of her husband’s time spent on council, noting that it could be rough to be the wife of someone deeply engaged in tribal politics.
“Tribal politics is a big crab pot. You try to climb up to do something good for the people, and the other crabs are pulling you down, saying don’t do too much, you’ll make us look bad.” She paused. “But he was a leader. I put that on his headstone.”
Denise Hill, a White Swan resident who attended the event, agreed.
“He is our leader,” Hill said. “He helped my family in ceremonies. I respected him.”
Meninick closed the ceremony by reminding those in attendance that tribal people, over time, did not crumble or crawl into the shadows. They survived.
“Their job was to survive, and they dedicated themselves to that. He dedicated himself to that,” Meninick said. “He has been honored. We can let him go now. He will be with us forever.”
Following the formal memorial ceremony, the family encouraged guests to stay for a community meal, sign a memorial book, take a program and memorial card, and visit Jim’s gravestone, which was set in place Thursday with the epitaph “Our Leader.”
“His life’s purpose, to preserve and protect Yakama culture and land, for those yet unborn,” the stone also reads. “He tried and succeeded.”
The dressing service for Jim will begin at 10 a.m. Sunday at the Toppenish Creek Longhouse in White Swan.