Cheewa James was a unique U. S. National Park Service ranger-interpreter—one-of-a-kind. She served for two years in northern California’s Lava Beds National Monument, site of the 1873 Modoc War. James was the first and only Modoc to ever don a ranger hat and wear a park service badge.
Cheewa James’ great grandfather fought in that war. He was the warrior known as Shacknasty Jim. Since the Modoc language was difficult for the non-Indians coming onto Modoc land in the mid-1800s to pronounce, they renamed the Modocs.
James says that Shacknasty was supposedly given this name because his mother was a poor housekeeper. “But no one knows for sure,” she says with a smile. “One thing is for sure. I am grateful that my grandfather dropped the Shacknasty and elongated Jim to James. Otherwise, I’d be Cheewa Shacknasty.”
James’ mother was from a German immigrant family and took an early interest in her Modoc husband Clyde James’ history. Living during the late 1930s and early 1940s on the Klamath Reservation in Oregon, where many Modocs lived, Luella James searched for historic material and began to accumulate old treaties, documents, and photographs. Decades later, her daughter, Cheewa, inherited those items.
“As I got older,” James reminisces, “I became more and more curious about what my mother had given me. What caused the war? Why did Modocs die like flies as prisoners of war in Oklahoma?” The answer to these questions led her on a 12-year odyssey of research, interviewing Modoc descendants, and writing.
James began her college education at Colorado College, studied at the University of Oregon, and received a degree in English and speech from Northwest Missouri State University. Her degree gave her the academic tools to record the Modoc story, and with the addition of modern tools like the Internet and e-mail—and some solid detective work—an amazing story began to unravel. Bit by bit mysteries were researched and turned into documented history.
“What struck me with the greatest emotional force was all that Modocs had experienced—war, exile, disease, poor government administration—it was a miracle that they survived at all. And there was my title, The Tribe That Wouldn’t Die.”
James is currently a motivational keynote speaker and corporate trainer based in Sacramento, California. She at one time was a news anchor and television talk show hostess, airing into areas of the Klamath Reservation, where she was born. James spent much of her growing up years in Taos, New Mexico, where, she says, “I lived in a wonderful, multi-cultural environment.” Her family has married into the Navajo and Rosebud Sioux Tribes.
“The most revered among Modocs were orators and speakers,” says James. “The Modoc culture was one of America’s earliest democracies. Everything, even strategy in war, was done by consensus of the people. Those of the silver tongue were held in high regard, so it is most appropriate that speaking has been my way of life.”
With her book in print, James has returned to a more leisurely life where she is a downhill skier, tennis player, and ballroom dancer. She says her strong interest in sports comes from her father. Clyde “Chief” James was America’s first Native American professional basketball player, beginning his career in the 1920s with the Diamond Oilers of Tulsa, Oklahoma.
“When it came to action on the court,” Cheewa asserts, “my dad was as strong a warrior as those who fought in the Modoc War.”