Photos by Kelly O
Rick Williams, brother of slain First Nations wood-carver John T. Williams, has spent the last four months hand-carving two cedar logs under a green-and-white plastic canopy along the Seattle waterfront. He works for 12 hours a day, seven days a week, without rest—an estimated 1,332 hours of work so far. He carves in tribute to his brother. "The frog represents death, and the baby raven is requesting peace," Rick explains. Then he points to the carving of a man in the middle of the larger totem pole: "This is John." In the depiction, John is carving a design that earned him the honor of master carver among his Ditidaht tribe at the age of 15.
On July 6, Rick finally put down his carving knife—a pocketknife similar to the one his brother was shot for carrying—but there's still work to do: The totems must be painted, and plans must be made to erect them. "I haven't had a break yet, and I won't until the world hears my stories in my work," Rick says. "I gave my word."
The City of Seattle commissioned Rick to carve the totems. The cedar trees, donated by the Manke Lumber Company, were cut down after a traditional ceremony of thanks and blessing, Rick says. "My granddad was the last person in our family to carve a log pole," explains the seventh-generation wood carver. "I've found it to be healing. Took away the anger and rage. I didn't want to feel hatred."
Rick's sons and nephews stay with him throughout the day, helping him paint and carve. Strangers visit the waterfront to bring him doughnuts and water as he works. Other people sleep with the totems for security because "the Seattle police wanted nothing to do with us," Rick says. (Seattle Police Department spokesman Sean Whitcomb said additional patrols were added to the area.)
The totem poles will be finished by August 30 to commemorate the one-year anniversary of his brother's shooting death. Rick wants the smaller pole to reside at Victor Steinbrueck Park, and the larger 40-foot pole will find a home at Seattle Center. "I hope when this is done, I keep carving," Rick says. "But it's painful. I miss my brother."
John and Rick, photo taken the day of the shooting
This article has been updated since its original publication.