From Tragedy Comes Beauty: Memorial Pole Erected for John T. Williams

A story about the memorial totem pole that was erected in Seattle to commemorate John T. Williams.

A storm of outrage ripped through Seattle after the shooting death of Ditidaht First Nation carver John T. Williams on August 30, 2010 by a city policeman. There were marches in the streets, angry demands for justice and an investigation by the police department. The officer resigned after he had been cleared of all criminal charges by the King County prosecutor’s office, and a U.S. Justice Department investigation found widespread use of excessive force by Seattle police, a report released in December 2011 said.

On February 26, a 34-foot totem pole was raised at Seattle Center, near the city's famous Space Needle.

Through it all, Williams’s brother, Rick, was a standard-bearer for peace. He devoted his time to creating a monument to his brother that will, after the players in this drama are long gone, tell of what happened in Seattle in 2010, how an injustice brought people together. “Anger doesn’t serve anything,” Williams said one chilly December morning on the Seattle waterfront. “They took something beautiful from my family. I want to give something beautiful back.”

The John T. Williams Totem Pole Project features the main totem pole that was carried from Waterfront Park to Seattle Center and raised at a spot between the Space Needle and the Experience Music Project. Jay Westwind Wolf Hollingsworth, Mohegan, chairman of the project organizing committee, said a minimum of 64 people will be needed to carry the pole; according to the Seattle Times, 90 people lent a hand on Sunday. Some of the volunteers carried stands that the pole could be set on during rest periods, and helped raise the pole using ropes. According to Williams, ten chiefs had committed to attend. A second memorial pole carved by Williams family members and others will be erected later at Seattle’s Victor Steinbrueck Park, northwest of the famous Pike Place Market; a third pole will be erected at a site yet to be determined.

John T. Williams was intimately familiar with the streets his poles will loom over. His ancestors were too; his family has been in the Seattle area since the early 1900s, Rick Williams said. It’s fitting that the Native imagery of the main pole was be carried down these streets, home to Native peoples now and since time immemorial, a history and a future that cannot be erased with a bullet.

On that August day in 2010, John T. Williams was crossing the street at Boren Avenue and Howell Street, carrying a piece of wood and a carving knife with three-inch blade. Seattle Police Officer Ian Birk saw Williams, pulled his patrol car over, then walked toward the carver and yelled at him to put down the knife. A few seconds later, Birk opened fire, fatally shooting Williams four times.

Birk testified that Williams ignored his command and took an aggressive posture, and that he considered Williams to be a threat. Williams’s family says John was hard of hearing, a result of living on the streets, and had a history of alcoholism.

A police review board ruled the shooting unjustified, Birk resigned from the force, and the city agreed to pay the Williams family a $1.5 million settlement.

Seattle city officials, among them Mayor Mike McGinn, supported Rick Williams’s idea of a memorial pole to honor his brother and arranged for him to have free use of Waterfront Park to carve the poles. The cedar tree that was felled and donated by Manke Lumber Company yielded the logs for the memorial totem pole and the two other memorial poles that will be dedicated later. Williams, his son Eagleson, and two other carvers started carving the poles in March 2011 at Seattle Center, which is owned by the city, and the project moved to Waterfront Park in April due to construction of a museum.

Williams, who owns a home in the Cascade foothills town of Concrete, Washington, 95 miles northeast of Seattle, lived in a construction trailer on the carving site until the project finished. That trailer was a four-minute walk from Ye Olde Curiosity Shop, which first sold his grandfather’s totems and other carvings a century ago. When he wasn't not carving on-site and talking to visitors about his brother, he worked on commission on four house posts for the salmon bake house at Daybreak Star Indian Cultural Center, the intertribal cultural center at Discovery Park in Seattle operated by the United Indians of All Tribes Foundation.

Visitors regularly post comments and photos to the project’s Facebook page, which as of press-time had 2,795 likes. All have been touched by the symbols of healing and peace that are emerging from this tragedy. “I saw the pole and heard John’s story today for the first time,” wrote Heather Burns, a native of Akron, Ohio now living in Port Townsend, Washington. “Thank you for transcending the injustice of his death with this powerful tribute.”

Hollingsworth, who lives in Seattle, said Rick Williams has a dozen spiral-bound notebooks that have been signed and filled with messages from visitors from all over the world. “Everybody’s totally amazed,” he said of response to the memorial totem pole. “Visitors have been sympathetic and empathetic toward the Williamses for their loss. It’s been uplifting to see that they care.”

An interpretive display at the carving site explains the figures on the John T. Williams Memorial Totem Pole.

• Top: Eagle. “The Eagle flies the highest and sees the farthest, so he takes the perch at the top of the pole.”

• Middle: Master Carver. “This is a Williams family symbol handed down through seven generations of woodcarvers. This master carver is John T. Williams displaying his own signature totem, which features the Kingfisher and the Salmon. This carving, at the age of 15, made John a master carver in the Ditidaht First Nation, in British Columbia.” According to the interpretive display, John T. Williams’s works, and other Williams family pieces, are displayed all over Seattle, at the White House and in the Smithsonian. At this writing, early John T. Williams carvings are being sold on eBay for $8,500.

• Bottom: Raven Mother and Baby. “The Raven watches and nurtures us, making up the foundation of the totem.”

Dennis Underwood, Stz’uminus First Nation, a cousin of the Williamses who helped carve the memorial totem pole, said he hopes the memorial totem pole will prove that “something good can come out of something bad.” He said working on the pole was healing for him. “I took out my frustration with the justice system in a positive way,” he said.

There are two ways people can help defray expenses associated with the John T. Williams Memorial Totem Pole Project—and be a part of history. Donations will be used to establish a fund to ensure the memorial totem pole’s perpetual care by the city of Seattle Parks and Recreation Department.

For a charitable contribution of $250, a granite tile will be engraved with the donor’s name and a short message, Hollingsworth said. Tiles will be placed on the plaza around the pole at Seattle Center. Visit

The Potlatch Fund is accepting donations for the memorial totem pole project. Write to the Potlatch Fund, John T. Williams Memorial Totem Pole Project, 801 Second Avenue, Suite 304, Seattle, Washington, 98104.