February 26, 2014
Vol: 51 No: 9

Interview

Honor totem

By Rosette Royale / Interim Editor

A new documentary traces the creation of a totem pole to honor John T. Williams

After a Seattle police officer shot First Nations wood carver John T. Williams in 2010, community members carved a totem pole in his honor. The pole is now located at Seattle Center. Documentary filmmaker Ian Devier has made a 45-minute film about the honor totem.

Photo by Jon Williams / Arts Editor

John T. Williams

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Ian Devier had just been hired by the Seattle Channel in April 2011 when he got his first assignment: make a short film about the creation of the totem pole to honor First Nations carver John T. Williams.

On Aug. 30, 2010, Williams was walking in a downtown crosswalk carrying a piece of cedar and a carving knife. Seattle police officer Ian Birk had stopped at the traffic light; when he saw Williams, Birk yelled at Williams, who had partial hearing loss, to stop. When Williams kept walking, Birk shot the carver four times. Williams died from the injuries. 

For many in the community, Williams’ death ignited feelings of anger and frustration. County and federal prosecutors opted not to file criminal or civil charges against Birk. But the death played a role in a Department of Justice investigation into the Seattle Police Department, which is undergoing court-mandated reforms.

Shortly after Williams was shot, community members began a movement to create a totem pole in his honor. Work on the totem pole began a month before Devier began working for Seattle Channel. The pole — 33 feet long and estimated to weigh 5,000 pounds — was erected on Feb. 26, 2012, at Pier 57, near the Space Needle.

As Devier, 40, met members of the Williams family, he realized community involvement in the totem pole project couldn’t be contained in a short documentary. It needed to be longer.

The result is “Honor Totem,” a 45-minute documentary that’s still a work in progress. A preview screening of the film will be held Sunday, March 2, 2 p.m. at SIFF Cinema Uptown. The screening is free.

Prior to the screening, Devier talked about what he’s learned during the filmmaking process.


How did you come to do this documentary?

It was originally assigned to me to be part of my job, and they wanted a story on just the totem pole. I went over there and just started talking to [the family], and the more I talked to Rick Williams [one of John’s brothers], the more I saw that this is more than a four-to-six minute piece. We needed to follow the documentation of the pole and the raising. It turned into a whole lot more since it was raised, so I got into the back story.


What did you find?

What I found is their link to Seattle’s history. Basically their carving style is original to Seattle. Sam Williams, the grandfather, he started carving for Ye Olde Curiosity Shop [a waterfront Seattle museum founded in 1899], and he developed a totem pole style. It was mainly for the tourist trade, and he created this whole new style for characters and designs for the pole. And that carried on to his children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren.


What was one of the most surprising things you found?

I don’t know if anything was necessarily surprising. There was a lot of stuff I found fascinating.


Such as?

Eric [another brother] was there the day John was shot. People by now may have heard this story, but John, he was having a lot of troubles. The family kind of lost contact with John. And their mother, Ida Edward, who lived in Vancouver,[B.C.] she sent Eric down to Seattle to find John. His mother had told him, “John needs us.”

Rick came and met Eric in Seattle, and they looked for John for a couple days. And the third day they finally found him in Pike Place Market. That’s where they kind of reunited. And for the next couple days, with Rick’s sons, John’s nephews, they sat in Victor Steinbrueck Park and carved. After a few days, John asked Rick if he would help him “carve blind” [to carve using senses other than sight]. Their grandfather had lost his eyesight, and later on, he would carve blind.

What I’ve heard from the family is John wanted to sober up, and he said, “I’m gonna go get my [carving materials].” He told them he’d be back in two hours. And looking at the police video, it looks like he was on his way to meet them. And it’s on his way that Officer Ian Birk stopped him. That was when he got shot.

That was the fifth time he’d been stopped that month by police. In some video I’ve seen, John was getting pretty frustrated by being stopped all the time. But the police would have had to have been right up in his face to talk to him, because John couldn’t see or hear very well.


So this film tells the story of the creation of the pole?

The pole is a representation of the Williams family in Seattle. You have the eagle at the top, the master carver in the middle and the raven at the base.

And the master carver is holding what many thought was John T. William’s best design: a kingfisher with a salmon in its claws. The detail that’s in there is what Rick and John’s family brought to the Williams style.

With each generation, they’ve added a little bit more style, a little more flair.

The screening is a work in progress, and I tried to do interviews with the police department, to get their feelings. One aspect of the totem pole is that it was a project to honor John, but they were also trying to redirect anger and bring peace and calm. So I finally was going to interview [Interim Police Chief] Jim Pugel, but the day of my interview, he actually got demoted [Mayor Ed Murray removed Pugel in early January]. But the Wednesday after the [March 2] screening, I’m going to be interviewing [Assistant Chief] Nick Metz.

So he’ll be in it when it actually airs on Seattle Channel. There will be later screenings at Chief Seattle Club and at City Hall in April.

One of the challenging things about doing this piece is that I’m a privileged white guy. In this film there are no narrators, so it’s really told through interviews with the family, to try to keep it through their perspective. A lot of the family didn’t know who I was, and when I first showed up [at the totem pole carving], I was wearing a press pass, which had a Seattle police badge on it. But the more I kept showing up and talking with them, the more they accepted me.


So do you think you played a role in helping to alleviate the anger and rage?

With all the family, it’s still really raw. They’re not over it. I don’t know if they ever will be. I don’t know how you ever can be. Rick says he doesn’t hate the police, but he’s angry at what happened, angry about what happened with the inquest.

My whole thing was I saw [the story], and I realized: Here’s a story that I have the means to ... get out there. And I should do this. It seemed like it was just something that needed to be done.

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