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Eagleson Williams Hopes Memorial Totem Poles Will Forever Preserve His Uncle’s Legacy

An article about the memorial totem pole being carved by Rick Williams in Seattle as a tribute to his late brother John T. Williams
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Reprinted with permissions from the Coast Salish Gathering News

On a warm day in July, 17-year-old Eagleson Williams happens to be the only member of the Williams family at Pier 57 under the awning at the John T. Williams Memorial Totem Pole Project on Seattle’s waterfront.

Eagleson is the nephew of the late John T. Williams, the Ditidaht carver who was killed by a Seattle police officer while crossing a street Aug. 30, 2010. The shooting was ruled unjustified by the Police Department's Firearms Review Board and the officer, Ian Birk, resigned, but no charges were filed. The Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice is conducting a review of the facts to see if Birk violated federal civil-rights laws.

The City of Seattle, which settled out of court, paying $1.5 million to Williams’ mother and his estate, has given John T. Williams’ brother Rick Williams permission to carve a 32-foot Memorial Totem Pole. It will be raised at Seattle Center on Aug. 30, on the first anniversary of his brother’s death.

A companion pole, which is thinner and two feet shorter, was taken from the same tree as the larger pole, and will be known as the Declaring Peace pole. It will be raised in Victor Steinbrueck Park, at the north end of Pike Place Market, where Native artists like the Williams brothers spend their days carving, and laughing at each other’s stories.

John T. Williams was a seventh-generation carver from the Ditidaht First Nation on Vancouver Island. At the age of 15, with neither a photograph nor drawing to guide his knife, he carved a totem that demonstrated his mastery of the art form to his father and grandfather. John's surviving brother Rick Williams is also widely respected carver, and is master carver for the memorial totem pole project.

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The center place on the memorial pole has an image of the Williams brothers' grandfather holding a replica of John T. Williams’ miniature pole which is known as the master carver. This pole is being painted by family and volunteers now.

John T. Williams earned his living carving miniatures and selling them in Seattle, as his family has since about 1910, and was a well-known presence in the close-knit urban community of significantly First Nations carvers. His family among others who sold their work in the park, at the north end of Pike Place Market.

“The pole as it sits is an evolution the Williams’ family’s style,” said volunteer Jay Westwind Wolf Hollingsworth, a Williams’ family friend. “It has gotten more detailed under the hands of Rick and John T. Williams, but the original designs are in the style of their clan, and handed down from their lineage.”

Williams' nephew, the son of his brother Rick Williams, considers his uncle to be a legend. Already Eagleson and his brothers and sisters are the eighth-generation carvers, having honed his skills not only on miniatures but now on his uncle’s memorial poles.

Family and friends, who have volunteered at the project, carving, painting and bringing food, say the pole reminds them of the importance of community for getting through hard times. People from Coast Salish tribes and First Nations are among the visitors who journey to the site, to see the poles and to take pictures. Even some of the canoe families on the Paddle to Swinomish planned to paddle by the pier to demonstrate their support.

Buttons and shirts are for sale. It may take as much as $150,000 more to transport, to install the foundation and support beams , said volunteer Jay Westwind Wolf Hollingsworth, a Williams’ family friend.

“These poles represent a healing process for this family,” he said. “They will stand for decades. Heck, it is cedar; they may very well stand forever.”