At 4:12 p.m. on August 30, the family of John T. Williams, along with tribal members, Mayor Mike McGinn, City Attorney Pete Holmes, representatives from the Seattle Police Department, stray tourists, and roughly 250 other people joined hands at the Waterfront Park boardwalk to loosely encircle two 40-foot totem poles and observed a moment of silence.
At that moment one year ago, Williams—a seventh-generation Ditidaht woodcarver—was fatally shot while walking downtown with his carving tools in a brutal, 10-second confrontation with SPD officer Ian Birk. (The shooting was ultimately ruled unjustified by SPD's Firearms Review Board and Birk resigned from the force.)
The public two-hour memorial service featured tribal songs, dancing, speeches, and blessings for John and the totem poles carved in his memory by his brother, Rick. "John Williams had a right to life," city council member Bruce Harrell said to an applauding crowd. "He was not a model of traditional success but he was loved." Other city officials respectfully declined to speak at the event.
But most striking were the prayers offered by the checkered crowd. "I hope John is watching this with a beer in one hand and a knife in the other," said a shirtless man named Hank. "I hope he's happy and not being hassled for what he likes to do." It's a rare event that brings shirtless men together with sweating men in suits, tribal members in full regalia and members in street clothes with feathers sticking out of logoed baseball caps (and the occasional pirate hat), homeless men and street peddlers, all looking to pay their respects.
"I dance with eagle feathers because they represent the connection to a higher power—the eagle carries our prayers," says Nikk Dakota, aka Red Weasel. "I'm dancing my heart out for John and his family."
"John grew up around Victor Steinbrueck park, earning a living by carving on a park bench, selling to whoever he could."
Rick Williams began carving the two 40-foot poles in March. The John T. Williams Memorial Totem Pole Project hopes to raise $160,000 to purchase and install one pole at the Seattle Center on February 27, 2012—John's birthday.
"I'm learning to carve the Ditidaht way, with a pocket knife instead of tools," says Dena Gartland, a Haida tribal member who apprenticed on the totem poles. "It's a different experience—you feel the wood at all times and really put all your feelings into it."
Andrea Brenneke, a lawyer for the Williams family, displays a miniature pole carved by Rick. Several small poles are being raffled off for $20 a ticket to help pay for installing the larger poles. To bid, visit the Facebook page for the John T. Williams Memorial Totem Pole Project.
Another miniature totem pole and behind it, master carver Rick Williams.
"John truly believed laughter was good medicine," said speaker Jay Westwind Wolf, who remembered him, "closing his knife first before turning his gaze to speak to you."
"What will a man like Birk do for the rest of his life?" asked one spectator. "How will he ever forgive himself?"
"I used to see John on the street," said Falcon, who sells dream catchers he makes out of glass, leather, and string. "Wherever he is, he's free and I'm glad."
Rick's nephews and other tribal members helped him carve and paint the two poles, which became de facto forts for children yesterday.
"I'm here to show my support and respect to an elder." Zephen
"It's scary to see a man go like he did," says Andrew. "He was my cousin," adds Allison, aka "New Yorker."
Two hours of prayer and singing included the song, "Wiping up the tears."
"My granddad was the last person in our family to carve a log pole—I'd never done it before," said Rick Williams. "It was an experience."