Last February, I posted a story about a compelling man I met on the street in Surrey, Eric Williams.
Less than two weeks ago, I awoke to headlines of a native carver being shot on the streets of Seattle,a story that was unimaginable for its sadness. As I read the story of John T. Williams, the man who was gunned down in the street, a piece of carving wood and a knife in hand, a chill ran through me because his story sounded remarkably similar to Eric Williams, the man I had written about last year.
I sent off an email to the band office in Port Alberni, and today I received an email from a lawyer in Seattle.
The carver who was shot in the street, was in fact, Eric’s brother. To see photos of John is to see an older Eric. His family and friends buried him last week, and Eric is now in Seattle carving with his other brother Rick. His family and friends are mourning the loss of a wonderful, albeit perhaps haunted, spirit.
It doesn’t fail me that it could have just as easily have been Eric who was shot, rather than John, because he too carried with him his signature pieces of wood, and his carving knife. Perhaps if the officer had taken the time to talk to his brother John, rather than shooting him outright, he might still be here today.
Everyone has a story, a lesson to learn and to share and teach with others.Words escape me as I think of why these men, one I met and one I did not, have left such a deep impression in my heart.
In honour of Eric’s brother John T. Williams, who I did not know, I’m re-posting my story from last year, and the story of John T. Williams follows. Here the two brothers will remain together. May John’s spirit be guided home.
Can we talk of integration until there is integration of hearts and minds? Unless you have this, you only have a physical presence, and the walls between us are as high as the mountain range.
Chief Dan George
It was his intense focus and concentration that stopped me in my tracks,palpable even from several paces away. Moving the blade of his pocketknife with the ease and delicacy of a surgeon, he deftly removed targeted bits of wood and blew the dust away to survey the results.
I watched as if hypnotized, noticing the way he narrowed his eyes as he examined his work- in displeasure or mere thought I did not know.
Pushing my stroller closer, I walked over and asked him what he was carving. He held up the piece he was working on, and the artistic quality of his work was stunningly clear.
In a very humble manner, as if caught off guard by my questions, he explained what each character on the pole he was carving represented, the beauty and pride in his words shining more bright than the sun beating down upon his face.
Well, it started out more like me asking questions, with a bit of silence from him before he finally answered each one thoughtfully.
He didn’t come right out and say it, but I’m pretty sure he was wondering why a white woman with a baby and a camera was suddenly wondering what he thought about so many things, and how he came to be on that bench carving.
A little late, introductions ensued and gradually the conversation began to flow.
His name is Eric Williams, and he is an artist – although he does not seem to think so. And although he is a bit reticent at first, he has many stories to tell, so stop and say hello if you should see him carving one afternoon.
His road has not been an easy one at times. Abandoned by his mother when he was 4, a doorstep was where she left him for others to care for.
His youth was spent in and out of various foster homes and family. He had limited experiences with drugs, but alcohol was what eventually drew him in for a spell. He doesn’t tell me this for sympathy,though – I get that. It’s just fact of where he came from.
He hasn’t had a drink in a long time though. That was then, and it’s in the past. We can’t live in bad memories.
This is now. Now Eric pursues his carving. Sometimes he carves along Robson Street in Vancouver, but he’s giving Newton a try. Not selling much though – this area doesn’t have a ton of money. I asked him how much he would sell the piece he was working on for, and he told me : ” about $55- 60.”
” Robbery!!!” I shouted. He just shrugged. He likes to work with people on the price.
His mind is sharp and thoughtful, and he always took a moment in consideration before replying to my( many) questions.
We talked about Surrey, and about the recent violence among gangs. He doesn’t agree with the violence, but he understands wanting to belong somewhere. ” It’s a powerful feeling, to belong , to have people that care about you.”
We talked about the treaty process in BC, and how it is affecting his band, which is near Port Alberni. We talked about his child, briefly, and his sister. The love he feels for her can be felt in his words. ”She helped raise me”, he said. We talked about the man who passed on the skills of carving to him.
A true gift, this skill of carving. Long after Eric, and you, and I, are gone – his work will remain perhaps, on someones wall in their home or office. When people ask who did it, they will tell them it was Eric Williams, the carver.
It will be his legacy – perhaps one of many to remind of the man who carves now on the bench in Newton…
The wind blew up sharply, and one of those natural silences fell upon us. I seized the moment and asked him if I could take a few photos for my site, when a friend of his showed up. Not wanting to interrupt their conversation, I knew it was time to move along. As I knelt to get the shots I wanted, I couldn’t help but overhear a bit of their conversation.
” Hey Man, what’s up?”
” Not much, just carving. Trying to be an artist one day.”
I looked over at Eric again, sitting in concentration, a small container on the ground in front of him for donations, and some beautiful carvings on the bench beside him – and shook my head.
What do you mean ‘trying’? I asked.
” You already are one…”
– Eric Williams, native artist/carver.
Member of Ditidaht First Nation was carrying his carving knife and a piece of wood on a downtown street
From Friday’s Globe and Mail Published on Thursday, Sep. 02, 2010 10:15PM EDT Last updated on Friday, Sep. 03, 2010 6:30PM EDT
John T. Williams was often seen in downtown Seattle holding a piece of wood and a knife.
A member of Vancouver Island’s Ditidaht First Nation, Mr. Williams was a carver, after all, an artist with a troubled past marked by alcoholism and mental health problems. He’d just moved off the street and into supportive housing after spending time in hospital and in jail, his friends said on Thursday.
Mr. Williams’s life was cut short on Monday when he was shot dead by a police officer as he crossed the street holding his signature piece of wood and carving knife, the Seattle Times reported.
Ian Birk, a rookie police officer, ordered the 50-year-old Mr. Williams to drop the knife three times, the paper said. When he didn’t comply, the officer fired four shots into Mr. Williams’s chest from a distance of three metres.
Mr. Williams is reported to have been partly deaf, but neither police nor his support workers have confirmed this.
The death has raised questions among those who work with the homeless in Seattle and among Mr. Williams’s band near Lake Cowichan on Vancouver Island.
“A lot of people are angry, in large part just because they don’t have a lot of information that can satisfy the many, many questions,” said Nicole Macri, director of administrative services with Seattle’s Downtown Emergency Service Center.
Staff at the facility had been helping Mr. Williams with his alcohol, drug and mental health issues on and off since 2004, Ms. Macri said. Mr. Williams lived in a supportive housing unit for people with particularly tough challenges, and was known for being both volatile and gentle.
“He was sometimes belligerent when he was drinking,” Ms. Macri said. “But [his friends] said that despite that, he was known as a very gentle soul, a good storyteller and an artist.”
Mr. Williams’s brother Rick also lived on the street in downtown Seattle and they saw each other fairly often, Ms. Macri said.
Ditidaht Chief Councillor Jack Thompson said Mr. Williams had his problems, but was a gentle person who would never hurt anyone.
“He was always quick with a smile and was always very happy whenever someone from our community saw him in Seattle,” Mr. Thompson said.
Mr. Williams was the grandson of master carver Wilson Williams from Nitinat Lake. He was to be remembered at a candlelight vigil in Seattle on Thursday evening.
The officer who fired the shots is on administrative leave while Seattle Police Department and the King County coroner investigate the shooting.