My name is Laurel L James (Ta waat). I am the daughter of Arlene Wesley James (Shii quimpt) and the late, Ernest James (Thel Cleputsch) of Harrah, Washington. I’m a Mother to my wonderful 14 year old son, Joseph (Nekewyema). I am an enrolled member of the Yakama Nation and a Graduate student within the University of Washington, School of Environmental and Forest Sciences.
Professionally, my career has been spent within the field of Natural Resource Management. I began this career working in various Fire Management positions. For a few seasons, I worked in fire control and suppression of forest and rangeland fires as a part of either an Engine or Helitack crew for the Yakama Nation. Then, I was recruited for the USFS; Entiat Hotshot crew. During my time with the hotshots; I was recruited back to the Yakama Nation to co-manage crews as a part of the Northern Spotted Owl Project. I began this role in December of 1990 and; would spend the next 17 years, working in various capacities for the Wildlife Resources Management Program. During this time, I was also rasing a son and when he turned 10 years old; I set into motion plans to return to Seattle and the UW campus, to finish my degree. Currently, I work part-time, as a program manager within the UW Chemical Engineering Department on the WSU led, NARA, Aviation Biofuels grant. I also work part-time as an Independent Contractor with the National Indian Forest Management Assessment Team (IFMAT). These experiences, my love for the outdoors and my strong sense of family have led me to where I am today ~ a woman, engaged in science.
I grew up on the Yakama Indian Reservation, a 1.3 million acre reservation located in South-central Washington State. I am one of 8 children (5 women). I come from a very large family and our strength extends from our strong sense of ‘family ’. This notion was transferred to us, from our parents; they had a strong marriage.
My father spent his early years in White Swan and the Ahtanum areas before moving to Vashon Island. He graduated from Vashon Island High School, received a scholarship and played football at Northwestern University in Evanston, IL. Upon completion of his first year of college, he enlisted in the Army, completed Officer Candidates School and served in the Korean Conflict.
My Mother was raised on the Yakama Reservation by her grandmother Emily (Shii quimpt) Twain a nash and within the Yakima Indian Christian Mission. Removed from her home, like many of the other Yakama youth of her time, she would be raised and educated within the public school system and by Christian Missionaries. For as many of the horror stories that have been published about these schools and this time in the history of our Yakama people and; not to diminish those atrocities, the one thought that comes to my mind is; this is when determination and perseverance began to flow, thick in my blood. My Mother survived the punishments that went along with speaking her native tongue ~ Sahaptin or; practicing any of the tribal traditions that she had been taught. She never lost sight of the individual and culture that she was born into – despite this upbringing. With her culture and traditional teachings in hand, my Mother would become the 1st Miss Indian America (1953), she was crowned during the All American Indian Days Celebration held in Sheridan, Wyoming. Then, pageant contestants were judged on their appearance, communication skills, knowledge and practice of culture teachings, knowledge of tribal, federal and state governments and talent in traditional and contemporary tribal skills.
During her reign as Miss Indian America, my parents would meet. At this time my Dad worked in the shipyards and for Boeing, in Seattle, WA. He was attending the the Pioneer Days Powwow held in Lake City, WA, when they met. Ernest Charles James Teeias (a descendant of Chief Teeias) and Arlene Josephine Wesley were married in 1954, they were the first couple to be married in the Log Church, located in White Swan,WA. They were married for 57 years when my father passed on in February 2011. I believe strength in family and in life extend from the examples set from this type of commitment to one another. Honor, grace, dignity, respect and commitment – all go hand in hand – this is what they taught me.
I am second to the youngest, of 8 children. I was born in Yakima, WA, raised and educated on the Yakama Reservation. Given my Mom’s background, I was raised in both the Christian Log Church and in the Toppenish Creek Longhouse; in the Longhouse we follow the Washat, 7 drums religion. I am also a part of the Wasco, medicine society taking part in those spiritual, healing ceremonies. We would spend some Sundays at the Christian Church and other Sundays following our Longhouse ways. I think this type of an upbringing provided a strong sense of ‘self’ in learning to identify ‘who’ I was in relation to the rest of the world. I take pride in the fact that I can recognize the land, culture and identity of being – Yakama. I was raised within the Powwow circle and still enjoy and participating in these types of celebrations although, it is much more difficult to find the time to participate while working and going to school.
Now that I’m here on a college campus, at 42 years of age, I can honestly say that I’m not the ‘traditional’ student, by any stretch of the imagination. I graduated from White Swan High School in 1987. During my high school years, I excelled in sports; was selected as the senior female athlete of my graduating class and considering the company that I was in; that was truly an honor. I lettered in each; Volleyball, Basketball and Track served as Captain of the Volleyball team and represented our school while playing in the State Tournaments, in both Volleyball and Basketball. I also represented our school at the State Track and Field meet during my Senior year.
Academically, I took as many advanced courses that I could have taken, at that time. I took Algebra in 8th grade, college English during my freshman year and was the only student enrolled in my computer science class. Back then, computer science had nothing to do with writing ‘Smartphone Apps’; back then, my computer programs were written onto cassette tapes! My Son can’t even begin to understand that! This was also a time in which; college was not on the radar. However, I was fortunate to have someone like Mrs. Heffner and Miss Hubert to introduce those ideas to me. Miss Hubert started me in College English, earning me credits at YVCC; while I was still in High School. Mrs. Heffner, my computer science teacher and my Volleyball coach, soon had me dreaming of becoming a sports trainer, so much so, that I began attending the Eastern Washington University, Sports Medicine Camps every summer. I was then gaining experience in HS, as a student trainer. I may not have ended up as a sports trainer however; it did introduce me to the collegiate environment.
Coming from such a humble background, if I was going to attend college, I knew I needed to make it happen on my own. I worked my way through my Associate of Arts & Science at Yakima Valley Community College; this was not an easy task. I went to school at YVCC and Heritage University (College) attending school on nights and/or weekends to gain the AAS. All the while, I was working full time and managing crews at the Yakama Nation. I would then enroll at the University of Washington to begin my BS in Forest Resources – Wildlife Science. I would maintain a partial employment with the tribe to help me work my way towards my BS degree. Nearing the age of 30 and nearing the end of my BS degree program, my life would radically change course and I would become a Mother. As sometimes happens in life, I would also become a single parent and was forced to leave school and return to work full-time.
I never gave up on my desire to finish college but, it would have to wait a few years. While working at the tribe, I continued to work hard and gain valuable skills in the field of Forestry and Wildlife. I would eventually become the first Yakama to be recognized as one the Wildlife Conservation Society’s, international research fellows. With this distinction, I was able to utilize the grant funding to begin a GPS Mountain Goat study, on the Yakama Reservation. Eventually, this fellowship provided the data to return to school and finish my BS degree in Wildlife Science. I still had a one-year, Bachelor’s thesis remaining on the degree; I returned to school, when my son was 10 years old. I then began my quest for a graduate degree. First, I set out to expand upon the mountain goat work on the Yakama Reservation via, a statewide habitat assessment of habitat.
After spending a year in the remote sensing and geospatial lab at UW; I was introduced to the UW Bioenergy IGERT director and my path would once again, change. I accepted the IGERT fellowship and would soon be working in the Bioenergy arena. After a year of coursework, I established collaboration with the Confederated Salish & Kootenai Tribes (CSKT) of Montana. During our IGERT year, we completed bioenergy assessments for the tribe and; I would define a separate Master’s Thesis topic, with the CSKT Forestry Department in Fire Ecology. I am now working to finish the MS degree and I’ve begun planning for my PhD which, could incorporate: forest policy & law, education and workforce development needs of Tribal Nations.
If you had asked me in 1987, where I would end up… I would never have been able to dream of the reality that I’m living today. I am a single parent, graduate student and I’m holding down 2 AMAZING part-time positions that truly bring my education and professional work experience, full circle. Native teachings talk about the cycle of life and how everything is ‘inter-connected’. I think my background truly represents this belief – I’ve come full circle.
I may have accomplished many things in my life however; my greatest achievement, to date, is being a mother to Joe. At less than a week old, a special ceremony was held for him in Warm Springs, OR where; he was blessed by members of the Wasco Medicine Society. He has truly been a blessing to so many others, since his birth. Joseph is Yakama/Navajo, is an enrolled member of the Yakama nation and is learning the traditional teachings of his tribe. He will undoubtedly envision a brighter future for himself, in large part, due to the bright inspiring minds that we are surrounded by, here at UW. Joe, is a freshman at Roosevelt High School, is a member of the UW MESA program and an extended member of the UW SACNAS chapter. He is truly the source of my strength and inspiration to ‘finish what I’ve started’; in terms of my college aspirations. It is not easy to take the route that I’ve taken in life. However, I’m proving that it is possible; possible to dream of things that may seem out of reach, due to the financial hardships. It is possible to overcome barriers, with strength and determination, all things are possible and I know this is something that many tribal members also face. I could not be prouder of this young man, young violinist, young teacher and budding scientist. This past year, he presented his 8th grade science project as a part of the American Indian Science & Engineering Society, pre-college program. He represented himself well and placed second, for his work pertaining to water quality. He even practiced his presentation at one of the SACNAS, monthly chapter meetings! He is thriving in this environment!
While Joe is carving out his path, we’ve definitely relied heavily upon the ‘extended’ family that we’ve built up here in the UW & Seattle area. My fellow colleagues, from the UW campus and SACNAS environment have all had a hand in helping me mold and shape him into the bright, young aspiring scientist that we see today. Our SACNAS chapter is a part of our family!
Throughout life, you live, and exhibit the characteristics that you develop throughout life. Strength and weakness, kindness and humility, love and compassion; cannot be taught, they are learned.
My parents taught us to ‘do as much as you can’, everyday. Help when you can….don’t wait to be asked. In fact, you should always jump up and jump in, do what you can, before someone has to ask you to help out. That was our teaching. During Joe’s younger days, we were living with my parents to help them care for my elderly Grandfather; (Joe’s namesake) Joseph Nekewyema Wesley. My assistance provided some relief to my Sister (Launa) and Sister-in-Law (Connie); they were also providing care for my Grandfather and; between the 3 of us, we were able keep him at home and out of the nursing home. This was hard work; sometimes I’d get home from my 10-12 hour days of working in the forest and would immediately begin the night-time ritual in providing care for him. Joe also had long days since, I would drop him off or pick him up before and after my day of work. So, he kept the same hours that I did (Albeit, he had the opportunity to nap during the day 🙂 but, he was a child. Joe and I would be responsible for gathering or bringing in the fire-wood, to help reduce the electric bills. So, as a young boy, Joe was learning that life is not always fun and filled with hard work. He also learned that family comes first. You take care of family and you treat ALL people with dignity and respect. Visiting with his great-grandfather while I provided the nightly care; taught Joe a thing or two about compassion and empathy. It definitely prepared him for life’s next challenge; in which we all watched and adjusted to his Grandfather (my Father), transition through the stages of Alzheimer’s and dementia. Until my Dad’s final days, Joe was the one individual that could still bring a sense of calm peace to my Father’s day.
One of the other areas that I’ve tried to stress to Joe is the need to volunteer and make a difference in someone else’s day. For years, I volunteered with the Crisis Line at Central Washington Comprehensive Mental Health in Yakima; while I worked and went to school full-time. A few hours, answering phone calls during the middle of the night; was enough to make a difference in the lives of those individuals that needed someone to listen to them. I’ve also been able to volunteer in other arenas where my academic and or professional training, came in handy. Volunteering is a great opportunity and I wish we could do more. Joe has volunteered the past 4 years at an after-school program here in Seattle and feels the rewards of being involved and making a difference in lives of those kids that he works with. To those kids, he has made a tremendous difference.
All of these experiences combined speak volumes about compassion, humility, strength, determination and perseverance. I honor my parents: First, my Dad for teaching me about strength and the idea of ‘never quitting’. I honor my Mom, for showing me how to hang onto the things that are important, without the expectation of getting something in return all the while, persevering and knowing who you are; while walking with grace and dignity. I honor my teachings and my cultural beliefs; all of these things were shown to me and are all things that I hope to pass onto my Son. These experiences have shaped me into the woman that I am today, a woman engaged in science and totally blessed to be a woman that is also a Mom!
Laurel James is a graduate student in Forest Resources at the University of Washington.