Honor Totem: John T. Williams Wokiksuye by Matt Remle

On August 30th, 2010 carver John T. Williams (Ditidaht) life was cut short when Seattle police officer Ian Birk shot him four times leaving him to die on the streets of Seattle. Outrage to the incident was immediate from the greater Seattle Native community, as well as, from members of other communities of color in Seattle who too have suffered from Seattle police brutality and violence.

“This is gonna speak louder than I ever will.” ~Rick Williams

Recently, the Seattle Channel’s Community Stories has released a powerful new documentary “Honor Totem” which tells the story of the Williams families long presence in Seattle, their storied history as carvers, the fateful encounter between John T. Williams and officer Birk and the moving tribute by Rick Williams to carve a totem in honor of his brother.

“This poignant documentary chronicles the John T. Williams Memorial Totem Pole project as a catalyst for healing and justice. The community art project rose from the August 2010 fatal police shooting of Williams, a First Nations woodcarver. The shooting sparked an outcry that extended beyond the city of Seattle and the native community. The slain man`s older brother Rick Williams chose a peaceful response through an ambitious endeavor to carve a 34-foot totem pole in honor of the Williams family`s artistic legacy and the memory of one of its most talented carvers.” ~the Seattle Channel


John T Williams memorial pole raising rally. Photo by: Matt Remle

Having been directly involved with the numerous marches, vigils, occupying city hall and other calls for justice surround John T. Williams murder and knowing the Williams family, several of whom are fixtures in Seattle and could be found carving on any given day on the Seattle waterfront, the film brought back a flood of memories and emotions. Most present of which is not the residual anger directed towards either the Seattle Police, or the city Attorney who refused to bring charges against Birk (despite the SPD’s own finding that the shooting was unjustified), but rather the powerful testament to the beauty of our Native ways and the path towards healing and redemption.

Central to this was John T. Williams brother Rick Williams who despite the pain and anger over the murder of his brother called for community wide healing and unity. This resulted in the carving of the John T. Williams memorial pole, which is now located at the Seattle center near the landmark Space Needle.


John T. Williams memorial pole raising. Photo by: Matt Remle

For several months Rick, and other carvers, brought the memorial pole to life culminating with a raising ceremony at the Seattle Center. Just before the pole was raised my son pointed out that there were two eagles circling directly above. It was an extremely emotional ceremony as is evident in the film.

What my family and I took away from the experience was not some sort of false expectation that the Seattle police department will suddenly reform its historical practice of racial profiling, but rather the strength and beauty of our traditional Natives ways, which live on.

500 years of genocide, slavery, land theft, criminalization of traditional ways, boarding schools and assimilation programs have failed. Rick Williams reminded us all what it means to be a relative, what it means to be Indigenous. RIP John T. Williams carver.

Mitakuye oyasin, Matt Remle


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