A memorial totem pole, perhaps even a matched pair, are in the planning stages by the family of slain First Nations woodcarver John T. Williams. The project already has some friends in high places, including Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn, who says he likes the idea.
Seattle is a city of totem poles: Carved figures glower, stand watch, warn, scold, honor and mourn on poles raised in parks, city squares, museums and shop fronts all over town.
Now a new pole, perhaps even a matched pair, is being planned by the family of First Nations woodcarver John T. Williams, who was shot and killed by a Seattle police officer last summer.
The project has some friends in high places, including Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn, who says he likes the idea.
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McGinn said he’d welcome a community conversation about the project, and whether the city can and should help. He said he potentially could support use of city funds and property for the project, including a place to carve the poles.
“John T. Williams was a woodcarver,” McGinn said, in an interview at City Hall. “He came from a family of woodcarvers. I am very open to the idea of a memorial pole.”
The practicalities of the project — where to get one or two cedar logs at least 30 feet long, transporting them, finding carving space and raising money to pay the artists — are a work in progress.
And while nothing has been agreed to, McGinn’s staff already has talked with the director of Seattle Center, Robert Nellams, about allowing the carving to occur on Center grounds, where the community could watch and maybe even help.
Rick and Eric Williams, two of John T. Williams’ surviving brothers in Seattle, envision a pole in which each figure represents a generation of the carving tradition of the Williams family, which has been carving and selling totem poles in Seattle for more than 100 years.
The family would like to carve the pole in a public venue so passers-by can watch, and even participate in the process, making a few cuts on their own, with help from the carvers. It would be like old times, he said, when carvers were all over the city, working cedar, soapstone and ivory — a pulse that can still be felt in Seattle, in artists like the Williamses working and selling on the street.
“I want to show people this native heartbeat,” Rick Williams said.
He wants to carve the work with help from his other family members, including his own children, with the first pole completed in time to mark the anniversary of the shooting of his brother on Aug. 30.
The shooting has raised a community outcry and is the subject of several ongoing investigations. Rick Williams said he hopes the pole can honor his brother and thereby help heal the family and the community.
Members of the Ditidaht band of the Nuu-Chah-Nulth tribe in B.C., Rick and John Williams were born and raised in Seattle. Rick’s palm is deeply calloused from holding the pocketknife he uses for carving — the same one he intends to use to work on the memorial pole.
Williams would like to carve two matched poles, with one raised in Victor Steinbrueck Park, and the other at Seattle Center, where members of his family have carved for generations.
Figures on the pole include a perched eagle, a mother raven, a frog, a kingfisher with a salmon in its mouth — and even a figure of a woodcarver.
“I want to tell a story without talking. That was what our granddad did, and our dad,” Rick Williams said.
Seattle’s many totem poles
Tacoma has its native son Dale Chihuly, with his celebrated glass art, and its Museum of Glass. But if the city of Seattle has a signature art form, it might be the totem pole.
Dozens of poles adorn the city, each with its own history and purpose. There are copies, original works and poles in every style all over the city, made by native carvers and nonnative artists alike.
A man rides the tail of an orca, and a bear stands tall in monumental poles at Occidental Park. A pair of farmers tops a 50-foot-high pole at Victor Steinbrueck Park, commemorating Pike Place Market. A glowering woman looms outside the front door of the Burke Museum, a copy of an early 20th century pole raised in B.C. as a public shaming for an unpaid marriage debt.
The city’s first large public sculpture is believed to be the 60-foot Seattle Totem Pole raised in Pioneer Square in 1899, according to Kate Duncan, professor of art at Arizona State University.
A memorial pole, it was stolen in Southeast Alaska and brought back by a bunch of touring members of the Seattle Chamber of Commerce, who chopped it down while the residents of the Tlingit village of Tongass were off at their summer village. The businessmen gave the pole to the city as a gift, and it was raised in October 1899. It was replaced with a copy in 1940 after the pole was damaged in 1938 by arson.
In a city replete with more than two dozen totems — even though Puget Sound tribes here did not traditionally make them — some said the project seems like a natural.
“This is of the spirit,” said Micah McCarty, chairman of the Makah tribe, speaking as a carver who supported himself with his artwork before running for council, hitchhiking to Seattle to sell his work. In a city with a long tradition of native artists and art, a memorial pole project has the right healing touch, not only for the family, but the community, McCarty said.
“Memorial poles honor the life of someone that made a contribution to the preservation and continuation of culture,” McCarty said. “Especially a family practice or a tradition.”
The Williams family carving tradition in Seattle goes back to their grandfather, Sam. Born in about 1880 and raised at Nitinat, a small community near Cowichan Lake on Vancouver Island, B.C., Sam moved to Seattle and settled on the Duwamish River flats between Seattle and West Seattle. Sam used to harvest logs escaped from booms on the Duwamish River for monumental poles he would carve at his home.
He began carving for Ye Olde Curiosity Shop in Seattle in 1901, according to Duncan, author of “1001 Curious Things,” a book about the shop, including a history of the Williams family carving tradition in Seattle. Williams’ youngest son, Ray, was father to John T. Williams and 11 other children, all of whom learned to carve.
The family switched to carving primarily small model poles decades ago for the tourist trade, carving right on the street and selling to passers-by, just as Rick and Eric still do today at Seattle Center, Victor Steinbrueck Park and other locations. John used to carve on Capitol Hill, where he was a neighborhood fixture on sidewalk benches.
“He was a great friend and a talented artist,” Rick Williams said of John. “He was something to sit with and carve. We were the wrecking crew, we would match each other totem for totem and cut for cut. We could finish a totem in an hour and a half. We would sit all day, carving.”
Lynda V. Mapes: 206-464-2736 or firstname.lastname@example.org