“Mommy, I’m hungr—“ Patrick’s cry for ice cream was cut short by the slow, steady drum beat. Seagulls circle around Pier 57 in downtown Seattle.
Patrick scoots down on his knees transfixed. I watch my 4-year-old boy squirm his body toward the steel barrier trying to get his neck between the bars for a closer view of a Native American man in ceremonial dress.
A native vocal undulates like a bird taking flight and my head starts nodding in time with the slow, even drum beat.
“Mommy, I want to climb up on your neck so I can see better!” 7-year-old Amelia paws at my clothes.
A half-man, half bird rattles the head of a raven high in his right hand. His back is adorned with a fan of feathers and two raven feet. A red weasel pelt dangles down his soft honey colored leather pants. As he dances he brandishes a wing of feathers that he waves toward the crowd and up to the sky. The overall effect is mesmerizing and the crowd stands at attention.
“I dance with eagle feathers because they represent the connection to a higher power — the eagle carries our prayers,” I overheard Nikk Dakota, aka Red Weasel say to a reporter furiously scribbling in her notepad.
A few months ago I had become interested in totem poles after fate had placed an unbelievable story in my lap. It came in the form of a spry geriatric I noticed scuttling a wheel barrel through a Fred Meyer flower bed. The old guy wore a bright purple beret — not something you see every day at a grocery store.
And I should know. As a mother of four young children it always feels like I’m running to the grocery store. I write a bi-weekly column in the Renton Reporter (a suburb of Seattle) and I’m always on the look out for quirky characters.
“Where’s the purple beret guy?” I asked a man standing in the flower bed with a shovel next to a spray painted sign that said, “Danger Hole.”
“He left.” The man said and kept digging. “And I’m digging the hole.”
“What for?” I asked.
“For the Henry Moses Totem Pole,” the man named White Bear replied.
“I wanted to restore the pole — then it was stolen” White Bear said. “But we got it back and now the man with purple beret is restoring it. His name’s Jim.”
Feeling a little like Scrappy Doo in the Mystery Machine (with melting popsicles and warm milk) I pulled our minivan up to Jim Ploegman’s workshop.
“Can we touch it?” Amelia asked referring to the totem laying belly up on stilts. Jim nodded.
We felt the smooth fin of a whale carved into the thick cedar tree over 30 years ago. Jim began describing the blues, greens and red colors he would use to breathe life back into the pole again.
“Who steals a totem pole?” I asked still trying to process such a galling theft. “Can you tell me his name?” I asked looking at Jim waiting to begin furiously scrawling in my Moleskin.
A look of disappointment descended across his face, the same one that often crosses those of older people when younger people just don’t get what’s important in life.
“You don’t want to write about this guy.” Jim said waving us inside his studio. Our eyes feasted on a trove of Native American treasures. Amelia snapped pictures as Jim showed us his art, books, wood carving tools, eagle feathers, and musical instruments.
Even so, I felt myself becoming possessed by Bob Woodward, from the movie All the Presidents Men, investigating the corruption of the century… who steals totem polls?
When I got home I contacted the Seattle Prosecutor. Why didn’t the police prosecute the totem thief? I cruised the internet and made a timeline on the wall to fill in the missing pieces about “Chief Big Balls.” Obviously that’s not his real name. He’s not a chief at all — he’s a 70-year-old white guy who goes around stealing totem poles. But for the sake of the story that’s what we’ll call him. The truth is Chief Big Balls is rich and apparently sue happy and successful at buying his way out of criminal prosecution.
Chief Big Balls whet his appetite with our towns totem pole (although there wasn’t enough evidence to charge Balls with the theft of the Henry Moses totem) and then according to police reports decided to steal West Seattle’s iconic 18-foot totem carved with depictions of a beaver, raven, orca and spread-wing thunderbird for his new garage. According to documents he has a million dollar house in West Seattle and has recently built a country, waterfront estate.
Big Balls claimed to be on the Seattle Arts Commission when he hired a crane operator and boom truck and with the special tools he successfully unbolted the 500-pound totem pole from a popular West Seattle park.
Thankfully, witnesses remembered the name of the towing company and the man who paid with a credit card and so justice is served… well not quite.
In lieu of prosecution, the thief paid over $20,000 in a plea agreement to restore the West Seattle pole. The police found my city’s totem pole alongside the West Seattle totem pole on a trailer parked at a senior center in Keizer, Oregon.
After days of research I was frustrated. Investigative reporting is important… but I realized Jim was right. I didn’t want to write about another rich guy with a Herculean sense of entitlement.
I wanted to write about how much fun it was learning about Native culture and art from Jim and watching him don the Native American armor he’d fashioned out of soft leather and wooden plaits with Amelia posing alongside him brandishing the jawbone of an ox.
That is a memory I will cherish and was the reason we were at the one year anniversary of John T. Williams death. John T. Williams was a man who was shot and killed by a Seattle Police officer for carrying nothing more than a single-blade pocket knife and a scrap of wood.
Our family was there to honor the passing of a seventh-generation Ditidaht woodcarver and to witness a unique and thriving Native American culture that still exists in our country.
A dream catcher caught my eye as elders blessed the totems underneath the large temporary awning protecting them.
Totem poles are artistic presentations of monumental sculptures carved from large trees, mostly Western red cedar, by Native Americans of the Pacific Northwest.
I explain to the children the significance of the animals painstakingly carved into the redwood cedar using only a small blade knife.
The green frog represents peace, the baby raven a new beginning. The eagle represents the transformation from youth to a place of courage and understanding of the connection between spirit and humans. The totem’s central image of a kingfisher holding a salmon was designed by John at age 15.
“Mom, why are they smoking big cigars?” Sophie asks, pointing to a bundle of what at first glance appears to be smoldering grass that people in the crowd inhale as smoke swirls up and around.
The bundles were sage and used to purify the people and the grounds.
“Mommy! An abalone shell!” Amelia pointed to an abalone on top of one of the totem poles.
“The abalone shell is filled with sage too,” a Native American community advocate explained.
“We use abalone shells to “smudge.” Smudging is the process of burning the herbal gifts from Mother Earth and fanning the smoke over your body with sacred intention.
Like the John T. Williams celebration, all people are welcome at pow wows around the Pacific Northwest or across the country. Most are hosted by tribe, but many do take place in cites.
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