How Many ‘Toes’ Do you Know
By Rhonda Bigovich, TRT Contributing Writer
Many locals know her as ‘Becky Toe,’ a spin off nick name that was given to her late father ‘Jimmie Toe’ James. For those who don’t know, Becky James, she is a Yurok woman and honored medicine woman in the area.
The James family is a large Yurok family that resides on the Hoopa Valley Indian Reservation. They come from a long line of dance makers.
The family is well known for their singers of traditional songs and for their beautiful regalia used for various reasons, but even more for the ceremonies they conduct during the summer months.
Becky, alongside several family members, come together to gather and prepare for the summertime festivities.
Time to Dance
Looking back at fond memories, James recalls the late Hoopa tribal leader, Rudolf Soctish as being strict. She laughed as she remembered him telling her, “You have too much make -up on, go wash your face.”
In her youth she participated in the Hoopa Jump Dance a world renewal ceremony conducted to hold the world in place, so the river will continue to flow.
“My uncle Dewey George was one of the men who brought back the traditional medicine for the Brush Dance, a ceremonial dance conducted to help sick children. I remember watching my uncle dance, he moved like a ballerina,” James said. “Like fluid motion, on his toes, it was beautiful to watch.”
With a light in her eyes, she remembered the old times, “Soctish too, was very strict, about how the dances were performed, always saving the best for the last, he did something special!” she said when asked what the brush dances were like in the earlier years.
Hoopa-Yurok Fish Wars
James relates life events on how old her son Joe James was at that time.
“Joe was around two,” she said softly., “when the Hoopa Yurok Fish Wars began in 1978.”
It was normal for James and her family to camp at the mouth of the Klamath River to fish. The Mouth is what local Indians call the location.
“We were right in the middle of it. Demonstrating, we put one net in the river. The Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) came in and tried to confiscate the net. We stood our ground,” James said. “When they tried to take it, we didn’t let them. At that time we were unaware this was the main boat. Before we knew it four people were being arrested. The feds said they were not going to be freed unless we agreed to quit fishing.”
Many families were camped all over the beaches in Klamath. James remembers when American Indian Movement (AIM) activists, made an appearance during the Hoopa-Yurok Fish wars.
“They camped with us for about a week,” said James, “Indians from all over.”
“I always knew not to wear pants at the dances,” James said. “It was just a feeling that I’ve always had.”
First, James started off in Shaker Church, a denomination that believes in a combination of Christianity and Native traditions.
James was approached by a Hoopa Medicine woman, and asked if she wanted to learn the ways of medicine so she could prepare medicine for the dances.
A pastor that went by the name of White Swan told James, “You take care of that dance.”
James soon began her quest as a medicine woman for those who called upon her for help. She remembers her first dance by–when Joe was a sophomore or junior in high school. Both of her children, Joe ‘Toe’ James and Earlene Mattz partook in their mother’s debut as a medicine woman.
“We were very proud of her, my brother and me, that she made the decision to become a medicine woman,” said Mattz. “It is a very important position with a lot of responsibilities.”
Along with being a devoted dance leader, James is multi-talented. She gathers and collects materials for basketweaving. James has made a variety of styles and types of baskets. She’s made baby baskets, her own medicine baskets, tobacco pouches and basket caps.
“They take a long time,” she said. She and her late mother also worked on a ceremonial dress together. James has taught a few students who have come to her and asked to learn.
Today, Becky Toe lives a quiet life. She spent many good years serving as a medicine woman, and decided to retire last year.
Both her children are grown and have started families of their own. She is content to move forward.
She will continue to attend the dances, but now she will sit and watch on alongside other devout goers.