Russell Jim was born in 1935, a decade before the public found out about the Hanford nuclear reservation’s role in the development of the atomic bomb, and two decades before The Dalles Dam would back up water over Celilo Falls, a Columbia River fishing site that was a linchpin of Yakama Nation culture.
With his strong connection to the past, he helped guide the Yakama Nation through wrenching changes over six decades while staying true to his cultural past. His passing on April 7 brought immediate and heartfelt testimonials about his influence on tribal affairs — an influence felt from Central Washington to Washington, D.C.
Jim over the decades provided a forceful voice for tribal interests in the management of Hanford. He objected strongly to a proposed nuclear waste repository at Hanford and the long-delayed and embattled cleanup at the site. Hanford is the nation’s most polluted nuclear area, a legacy of plutonium produced there for the Manhattan Project in World War II.
He was not a man of many words, but the ones he spoke carried great impact. He became an authority on Hanford pollution and its cleanup issue, testified before Congress about the cleanup and helped draft a federal policy that requires cleanup work to involve affected tribes and restore any environmental damage. He devised the tribe’s Environmental Restoration and Waste Management program, then managed it for 37 years.
His knowledge of traditional practices led to his deep understanding of environmental issues, especially the roles that different species of animals play in the ecosystem. He was a tribal elder who held leadership roles among his people for almost 60 years.
A stroke in 2016 slowed him down, but last year he was able to attend a gathering of more than 200 family, friends and tribal officials at the Legends Casino & Hotel events center. A series of speakers and a video honored his decades of work. In addition, Heritage University — whose campus sits within reservation boundaries — last year awarded him with an honorary doctorate degree.
Russell Jim’s life bridged a number of eras. While being strongly rooted in the past, he was able to influence tribal and federal policies that ensure his legacy will live on well into the future.