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Reflection on the Blessing of the Totem Pole

posted by Jenn Pearson on Wednesday, September 21 at 6:12pm

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This essay was written by 2011 Vendor of the Year Cat Condeff, who attended the August 30th Blessing of the Totem and John T. Williams Memorial.

The weather couldn’t have been more perfect.  The forecast for the day had been for gloomy, old clouds, but the universe and the heavens had other plans, plans of their own.  There were no clouds obstructing the view of the sky, and as I have no doubt that John-John (my nickname for John T.) could look down on all of us just as easily as we could look upward toward him.

If I had to pick just one word to describe the ceremony, it would be “somber.”  Sure, there was the celebratory regalia, as Natives from as far away as Alaska came to this event, as well as folks dressed in their finest Indian clothing, as well as people dressed in just plain ordinary garb that you see everyday folks and tourists alike wear all the time.  I was about the only one that I saw who was wearing black.  I thought of The Women In Black as I got dressed that day, as I do every time I wear my black velvet dress. I even wear black underwear as my own small, yet significant way of showing my solidarity with them.  Perhaps the most impressive individual there—to me, anyway—was the tribal dancer, who wore a massive array of eagle feathers and bands of bells on his wrists, arms and ankles.  There was one woman who had a top on the said “police” in large block letters, but it wasn’t a typical Seattle Police Officer uniform, and I don’t know as to what capacity it was that she was there, but the presence of uniformed city servants in blue were noticeably ABSENT.  Perhaps it was just as well.  The mayor showed up about 1/3—1/2 of the way through, but didn’t speak. KOMO news was there, and photographers aplenty.

Pier 57 was absolutely packed with people, mostly standing room only.  The chairs that were available were occupied by the elders, mostly—as it should be, and in keeping with the Native American tradition that calls for the utmost respect of those who have come before—and some were occupied by Natives who were visiting from out of state, some of them women with children in their arms.  The area above the Pier 57 setting was filled with onlookers—two or more deep, depending.

The ceremony itself lasted about ten minutes.  Most of what went before was honoring John-John’s memory and several different tribal leaders giving speeches about whatever they thought was appropriate for the occasion.  There was no “Birk bashing.”  There was no mention of how unfairly John T. Williams life was cut short at the hands of a trigger-happy pig.  Just that he had had a hand in the making of the Totems posthumously because the design of the kingfisher was his, and was used especially to honor his life—as well as his father’s and grandfather and also his living survivor-brother Rick.  John-John’s other brother was there,but didn’t speak.  Rick spoke about the making of the poles and how the money had been donated by (?) to pay for the raising and the maintenance of the two gorgeous totems.  They lay quietly, side by side during all this, I don’t suppose minding too much the snapping of photos and all the attention.  I’m pretty sure that it was sage that was lit, and after the speeches, and the drumming and the prayers were said, Rick and one or two others (i couldn’t see—), one of whom was an honored drummer, paced slowly around the two poles, chanting prayers and anointing them with the music of the drum and the burning incense.

There was a city councilman who spoke—I’d remember his name if you said it—and there was a raffle for the miniature replica totem pole as well as some turquoise jewelry and a few other handmade items—like a beautiful basket—The buy-in was $20.00 a ticket, but these sacred items were/are priceless.

After all this, it was made known that the ceremony itself was over, but that the mic would be open to anyone who wanted to share stories /or memories of the late Master Carver, determined by his own grandfather to be the best carver of the bunch.  Part of me wanted to go up there and say something, but it was just too personal of a thing for me to go up and say how I knew him in front of alot of people I didn’t know, who were then starting to disband, and wouldn’t have been much of a captive audience at that point.  They/we were throughout the ceremony, however.

I’m still not all that familiar with the camera that I was blessed with, but I did take a short movie during the drumming.  The still shots were kinda disappointing, but I wasn’t gonna go barging around to get a better angle like some of the others with cameras with massive lenses apparently feel they have the right to.  No offense.

The main sensation that encompassed me as I made my way up the Pier’s plank walkway was that we did The Master Carver, John T. Williams—John-John—proud.  And I had the distinct and unmistakable feeling that he was watching everything, hearing everything, even smelling the sage, maybe…that he was with us and that he was grateful that we came together not only as a people—family, friends and onlookers—but that it was a serene event, devoid of hatred or malice or revengefull words.  Absent of blame and shame.  A sacred, holy blessing that occurred without any unwarranted incidents, that helped the Totems to rest quietly, until their big day in February, 2012, John T.‘s birthday—the 27th—I think—when they will be raised and set in their permanent place.  Mary Alice—one who has been very devoted to this whole totem pole project, as well as to Rick Williams and other members of the family and the other carvers, etc.,—was there the next day and said that there was an unmistakable sense of the poles “sleeping.”

Like I said at the outset of this, the word to describe The Blessing of the Totem Poles was/is somber.  Suitably, painfully so.         
Submitted respectfully by
Catherine M. Condeff
“Cat” to some, including J.T.
Vendor #149


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