The John T. Williams Memorial Totem Pole, in honor of a slain Native American woodcarver, is erected at Seattle Center on February 26, 2012.

  • By Jim Kershner
  • Posted 1/18/2013
  • Essay 10299
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On February 26, 2012, the John T. Williams Memorial Totem Pole, in honor of a slain Native American woodcarver, is erected at Seattle Center. Over 100 people carry the pole from Pier 57 to its designated site at the Seattle Center's Broad Street Green. Many more are present for the raising ceremony. John Williams (1960-2010), a Ditidaht First Nation woodcarver and familiar sight on Seattle's waterfront, had been fatally shot on August 30, 2010, by a Seattle police officer, sparking controversy and leading to a finding that the shooting was unjustified. The totem pole project was conceived in 2011 by family and friends as a fitting tribute. The John T. Williams Totem Pole Project will donate the pole to the City of Seattle, and it will become part of the city's public art collection.

An Artist Lost

The totem project was conceived in 2011 as a way to honor the life and work of John T. Williams, who was shot and killed by Seattle police officer Ian Birk on August 30, 2010. Williams was walking down the street with a piece of wood and a small knife in his hand. Birk shot Williams after ordering Williams to put down the knife. The shooting was later ruled unjustified and Birk resigned from the police department.

The carver's brother, Rick Williams, said "thousands of people came from around the world to give their condolences and ask if there was something they could do" (Martinez). The Williams family, along with many friends and community supporters, founded an organization called the John T. Williams Totem Pole Project. The family comes from a long line of traditional master carvers in both British Columbia and Washington. As described by Rick Williams,

"I, like my brother, am a First Nations carver in the heritage and tradition of my people and my family who have been carving in Seattle since at least 1926" (Native News Network).

Public Support For a Fitting Tribute

Donations poured in from many foundations, companies, and individuals. The Potlatch Fund was the fiscal sponsor, and the City provided public space to carve the totem at Seattle Center in March 2011. In April 2011, the work was moved to a covered outdoor pavilion at Waterfront Park on Pier 57. The woodcarvers worked on the 34-foot, red-cedar pole as the public looked on. After it was finished, the 3,500-pound pole was carried by more than 100 people from Pier 57, past Pike Place Market, and on to Seattle Center.

At the ceremony, Rick Williams, the pole's main carver, said, "They took something beautiful; let's give Seattle something beautiful back" (Martinez). Williams's sister, Nancy Williams, carried a black flag that had written on it, "Stop police brutality." Seattle's deputy police chief, Nick Metz, also spoke, telling the assembled crowd, "I'm hoping that the raising of the pole will start the healing process between Seattle police and Native Americans" (Martinez). 

Rick Williams said they were donating the pole to the city in the "hope that it will be a symbol of peace and honor for many generations" (Native News Network). The top of the pole features an image of an eagle, which according to the interpretive display accompanying the pole, "flies the highest and sees the farthest" (Walker). In the middle of the pole is a Williams family symbol "handed down over seven generations of woodcarvers" (Walker). The image represents Williams himself, displaying "his signature totem, which features the Kingfisher and the Salmon" (Walker).


Richard Walker, "From Tragedy Comes Beauty: Memorial Pole Erected for John T. Williams," Indian Country Today website accessed December 20, 2012 (; Amy Martinez, "Tall Tribute to Slain Carver -- After Months of Work, Totem Pole Raised at Seattle Center 'a Healing and a Blessing,'" The Seattle Times, February 27, 2012, p. B 1; "City Accepts John T. Williams Totem into Public Art Collection," City of Seattle's Office of Cultural Events blog accessed December 20, 2012 (; Native News Network, "An Honorable Act for a Dishonorable Act: Totem Pole to Be Raised to Honor John T. Williams," Native News Network website accessed December 20, 2012 (; John T. Williams Totem Pole Project website accessed December 21, 2012 (

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