Special Reports

Famed weavers preserve Lummi heritage

Fran James is so relentlessly upbeat that she says her prayers often include those for "people who are always complaining."

James, herself, did not have an easy youth during the Great Depression. She suffered three dreadful losses before she was out of her teens, the unexpected deaths of her parents and her first child.

Such pain might have made a lesser person bitter. One hint to why she has forged a fulfilling life is one of her favorite sayings: "I don't like to look back."

James, who was inducted into the Northwest Women's Hall of Fame last year, would rather look ahead to her next venture. James and her equally distinguished son, Bill James, are among the most honored people in Lummi Nation's history.

Yet she has looked back just often enough to keep a diary since 1939, when she was 15. The original volumes, written in pencil, have faded beyond recognition, and others were lost in floods. But most of her diaries survive in ink, helping to provide indelible memories.

"As long as I have my health and proper food, I can be happy," said Fran James, a famed weaver of baskets and blankets.

She has appeared in several books, including one published by the Smithsonian Institution, and in dozens of newspaper articles dealing with Indian culture along with her son, also a noted weaver and historian.

Fran, who was among 15 Indians chosen for a national PBS documentary 20 years ago, and Bill often find "proper food" placed in the icebox outside their memory-packed home on the tip of Lummi Peninsula. Members of the Lummi community, especially younger members, give the food as a traditional show of respect. One day it's salmon; the next day, clams; the next day, duck.

"My mother's deep faith has always kept her going," Bill said of Fran, a longtime member of St. Joachim Church.

Blessing since birth

Fran says Bill has been a blessing since his birth in 1944, a year after her first son died during childbirth. Fran was happily married to her childhood sweetheart, Norbert W. James Jr., for 47 years. He died in 1990.

Fran laughs when she talks about how she had to "share" her son, a pleasant, personable fellow, when he was a friendly youngster. He received much attention from his aunt, Florence Kinley, and a family friend, Marion Revey, who lost a baby about the time Bill was born.

Bill, a lifelong bachelor, grows embarrassed when his mother make lighthearted jokes about how busy he has been since his teen years, when he attended New Mexico's Institute of American Indian Art in Santa Fe.

Bill worked as a professional weaver for more than a decade with Lummi Indian Weavers, a commercial company famed for craftsmanship, until the weavers went out of business in the 1970s.

He taught Lummi language for many years, wrote and published a Lummi dictionary to help preserve the language, started the tribal archives, and edited a Lummi newspaper in the 1970s.

Mother and son also taught basketry in the 1980s at Lummi Community College, the predecessor of Northwest Indian College.

"The country was not into nostalgia for genuine fabrics yet," Bill said, explaining why the Lummi weavers shut down. "People were still into polyester and plastic, and business was bad."

In 1991, mother and son both received a Peace and Friendship Award from the Washington State Capitol Museum for their contributions to Lummi culture.

Born on island

Fran James, the daughter of Alfred Francis Lane and Christina Cush Lane, was born on Portage Island. She spent much of her childhood attending boarding schools in Tacoma, Marysville and Salem, Ore.

When Fran was 4, her mother died giving birth to her fourth child. When Fran was 16, her father died in a boating accident in Portage Bay.

Fran describes the aftermath of that day - Dec. 7, 1940, one year before the attack on Pearl Harbor - as though it were yesterday.

"It wasn't easy, the way it happened," she said. "The matron at my school told me I was wanted at home, but she didn't tell me why. When I arrived back on the reservation and the whole family greeted me, I asked where Dad was. That's when everybody started crying. That really shook me up." Fran remained on the reservation and received care from her grandmother, Elizabeth Lane Malmberg, who lived to be 100. Within a couple of years, she married Norbert James and embarked on a life raising Bill, weaving and fishing - first at the Indian village near the Nooksack River and, for the past 35 years, at their current home.

"Anything a person needs, make it," became one of her philosophies. She still lives by it as much as possible.

She acknowledges frustrations with modern life - "There's too much noise" - but retains a youthful vigor by focusing on what's good in life, not what bothers her.

Bill can trace their ancestors back to the 18th century, before they had Christian names. Grandfather Norbert James was chief of the tribe from 1960 until he died in 1966.

Bill gets frustrated at the prejudice he still sees in Whatcom County.

"Don't judge all Indians by a few," he says.