On this weekend in the U.S., people are honoring the memories of the country’s military who died in action. But another memorial is on my mind today prompted by an article that appeared the other day in the local newspaper. That is the beautiful totem pole memorial that stood along the trail of Whatcom Creek on the edgeof Whatcom Falls Park in our city.
Sadly, the totem was recently removed, I read in the Bellingham Herald after someone vandalized and ‘tagged’ the pole with graffiti. Not long ago, a friend of mine had told me that the box that sat atop the pole, was missing and wondered why. Now the entire pole and the two carved wooden benches that sat beside it are gone after city workers removed them and placed them in protective storage until they can be restored.
While the city’s action is commendable, that of the vandals was disrespectful and, frankly, inexcusable. I am giving those individuals the benefit of the doubt that they apparently are unaware of that they not only did they deface a significant Native artwork, but in so doing they insulted the artist, the Lummi Nation and the families of those killed in the 1999 Bellingham pipeline explosion for whom the pole was intended to memorialize.
The 15-foot cedar log pole was created by the Lummi House of Tears carvers under the direction of Lummi Nation’s master carver Jewell James. Its bright, bold and beautiful paint was applied under the supervision of head painter Ramona James. The pole took months to carve and paint before finally being erected and dedicated during an Earth Day ceremony in 2007. “The pole is to restore the stream and its habitat and to remember the three boys who lost their lives,” carver James told American Profile reporter Heather Larson.
James referred to the three boys–Liam Wood, 18, Wade King and Stephen Tsiovras, both 10, who were killed when the Olympic pipeline (now owned by British Petroleum) carrying gasoline exploded dumping an estimated 277,000 gallons into the creek that runs through Whatcom Falls Park, located in the middle of Bellingham. Liam was fishing after having just graduated from high school; Wade and Stephen were playing, as they often did together, further down creek. It was a day that darkened the sky over Bellingham as the black cloud billowed above the park. The explosion literally stopped life in town as everyone, myself included, wondered what had happened and emergency first responders rushed to the site.
The explosion made national news, changed national pipeline regulation (although the families of those who died will tell you not enough) and some believe awoke Bellingham to the dangers that unregulated and aging pipelines pose for not only our city, but others like it throughout the country.
I was present, along with a few others, on the day of Lummi Nation gave and dedicated the totem and benches to the city. The ceremony was emotional and moving with other Pacific Northwest Native Nations witnessing the event in order to pass the story along to the next generation. Those gathered listened solemnly as carver James spoke eloquently about the need to promote healing for all those impacted by the explosions, wildlife as well as human life, and about the importance of being good stewards of the environment. Members of the Lummi Nation, also delivered a heartfelt messages for the family members attending. Lummi drummers and flutists played. Blankets were draped around the shoulders of the deceased boys’ young friends, now high school students, participating in the unveiling during the ceremony.
Then, James asked the family members of the victims to bring forward the items that they had brought to be placed into the memorial box positioned atop the totem. One by one the personal belongings of Stephen and Wade were handed up the tall ladder to the tribal member who carefully laid them inside. A teddy bear, a baseball card and cap were among the things. The lid was fitted tightly and sealed. Tears streamed down the faces of not only the family members but others who were that day.
And, as the ceremony was ending, two solitary eagles soared and glided over head, just as James had told Wade’s mother, Mary, earlier that day that they would.
It was a day I’ll never forget. When I read about the vandalism of the totem and its removal, my heart ached. The city is apparently intent on repairing and restoring the totems and benches but in the meantime, there is a huge emptiness where they stood in the opening by the creek. The runners, walkers and visitors who pass by it will miss it. The totem served as a somber, dignified reminder, as well as a memorial, to those who tragically died on that early June day in Bellingham. That’s what’s on my mind this Memorial Day.