One day in August 2011 my son took my wife and me for an outing along the Seattle waterfront not far from the public market. We saw a small group of carvers working on a totem pole to mark the shooting a year before of John T. Williams, a member of the Nuu-chan-nulth nation and a master carver. Police shot Williams after mistakenly assuming he was carrying a weapon. Instead he carried a scrap of wood and single-blade pocketknife, unopened. Carving went back generations in his family.
Several carvers from different indigenous nations, including Williams’s brother, labored away on that hot day at the end of summer. A young man greeted onlookers, explaining the project. Their goal was to complete the 34-foot totem by the first anniversary of Williams’s death on August 30. The pole came from a single giant cedar tree, and would be erected in February 2012 at the Seattle Center.
The experience has stuck with me, not only because it added yet another sad chapter to the narrative of police violence against minorities, but also because it reminded me of what it is to write. Don’t stories, characters, plots, symbols, words originate in some deeply rooted natural source? Doesn’t the story already exist just as the commemorative totem existed in the cedar tree, needing only (only!) to be carved with skill and dedication? And like the totem, aren’t stories compelled by experiences of trauma, memory, reverence, and mourning?