I just saw the most amazing documentary. Honor Totem is 56 minutes of intensity that will inspire you and also bring tears to your eyes. It will tell you about the strength of the Seattle community, and also, unfortunately, some of the tension and discrimination experienced by its Native American population.
It tells the story of John T. Williams, a Native American who comes from a family of notable totem pole artists. He was quite talented, but also led a controversial life. He had issues with alcoholism and mental health, and was for the most part homeless, but he was well known to the community and usually just did his thing.
He had several health issues. He was getting old, going blind, and was deaf in one ear. In August, 2010, he was walking slowly down the street, all alone, carving on a block of wood as this type of artist is known to do in the area. Unfortunately Seattle Police Officer Ian Birk walked up behind him and shouted at him to drop the knife. Perhaps he didn’t hear him. Perhaps he responded too slowly. The result was that this old artist was gunned down on a sidewalk in downtown Seattle in broad daylight.
The community was outraged that Officer Birk was acquitted of this crime. Especially due to the fact that on the same day as the acquittal a review board determined that the shooting was not justified. Many citizens were calling for a radical response.
But then an amazing thing happened. John’s brother, Rick Williams, in spite of his obvious grief, decided to take a non-violent approach that would have done Gandhi or Martin Luther King proud. He decided to carve a totem pole in his brother’s honor, getting the community involved.
The documentary shows what a unifying and healing process this became. The totem pole now stands in Seattle Center. I’ve walked past it, but I never knew its intense significance before. Next time I see it, I will treat it with the reverence it so richly deserves.
I encourage you to watch this documentary. It will change you. For the better.