Healing Poles Arrive in D.C.

Totems Destined for 9/11 Memorial Grove On Kingman Island

Posted September 21, 2004 at 3:16pm

Some people might marvel at the sight of an 800-year-old western red cedar tree, but Jewell “Praying Wolf” James, master carver of the Lummi Indian Nation, saw more in the aging cedar than just a long-lived life.

In fact, the vision he and the House of Tears carvers had for the 200-foot-tall cedar turned into the healing totem poles “Liberty and Freedom,” carved and blessed in honor of the 184 men, women and children who lost their lives at the Pentagon and aboard the American Airlines Flight 77 just more than three years ago.

“We worked in the day and carved through the nights, but it’s worth it because we know we’re bringing symbolic healing,” James said in a telephone interview. “The greatest gift we’ve received over the past couple years are those who have called us or written us about the healing we’ve brought” through the poles.

Located in Bellingham, Wash., the Lummi Nation has created three totems that have been carved to help bring healing to those who lost family and friends three years ago. The Healing Pole stands in Sterling Forest, about one hour north of Manhattan, in remembrance of those who died at the World Trade Center. The second pole, the Honoring Pole, is in Shanksville, Pa., at the crash site of United Flight 93.

The latest of the totems consists of two 13-foot-tall poles representing liberty and freedom, while the 34-foot-long crosspiece stands for sovereignty, as “it is liberty and freedom that support sovereignty,” James said.

The Liberty and Freedom poles originally were slated to be displayed at the Pentagon, near the area where Flight 77 hit. However, the Defense Department denied the request to have the totems on-site at the Pentagon because of security reasons. This left the totems with no place to go, until Jill Dowling, director of cultural resources at the Washington-based Lee and Associates, suggested incorporating the poles into the D.C. 9/11 Memorial Groves project.

“It’s a totally appropriate place ultimately for the poles to go because it’s part of another local 9/11 initiative,” Dowling said of the totem’s one-year display at the Congressional Cemetery, after which they will be moved to their final destination, Kingman Island on the Anacostia River.

Dillard said she could understand the security issues at the Pentagon and thinks it will be “much less of a hassle” to visit the totems at the cemetery.

Also, the Pentagon Memorial, which has raised $2.9 million in tax-deductible donations as of Sept. 15 according to its Web site, is being constructed near the Flight 77 impact site. Scott said it is better that the totems go to the cemetery and then to Kingman Island.

“They are two separate memorials, I think we’re all happy with where [the poles are] going,” Scott said.

The Journey

About 80 people helped create the Liberty and Freedom poles, from the carving and painting to the cleaning up. The effort took about 2,400 hours of carving work from April to August. The four colors used to paint the totems — black, white, red and yellow — reflect the “four races” of those who died in the Sept. 11 attacks.

“My son was painting in between the lines where we didn’t want him to paint, but my wife encouraged him to help because children are so spiritual,” James said at the totem’s dedication ceremony Sunday at the Pentagon’s south parking lot.

The ceremony marked the end of a 4,485-mile cross-country journey. Beginning in Washington state, the Lummi Nation brought the totems through Oregon, California, Arizona, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Tennessee, North Carolina and Pennsylvania, following a route similar to the Trail of Tears. Along the way, various tribes held prayer ceremonies for the poles.

Bringing the Liberty and Freedom poles to the East Coast was in large part due to surviving family members of those lost in the attacks. Abraham Scott, a member of the Pentagon Memorial Committee, said he never expected to play such an important role in the totem’s arrival.

“I had a packet of information with a letter to [Secretary of Defense Donald] Rumsfeld to ask about putting the poles at the Pentagon,” Scott said. “I got the packet into the Pentagon — I thought my responsibilities ended there, but before I knew it I was being called a co-chair.”

Scott, who lost his wife of 24 years, Janice, at the Pentagon, said each milestone of his two daughters’ lives for the past three years has been a setback for him. He said he was anxiously awaiting the arrival of the totems.

“I don’t want to rush it — when it comes, it comes,” Scott said, referring to the Sunday dedication ceremony. “It’s part of the healing process.”

Another surviving family member going through the healing process is Rosemary Dillard, whose husband, Eddie, was a passenger on Flight 77. Dillard was working for American Airlines at the time, and the managers of the four flight attendants on board reported to her. She said she, in a way, felt indirectly responsible for them as well as her husband.

“Since 9/11, my life has changed drastically,” Dillard said in a telephone interview. “It’s gone.”

Since November 2001, Dillard has been involved in 9/11 activities, starting with the Pentagon Memorial Committee. She said she has met many family members, including Scott, who lost someone that day, and “once you get involved — it’s become my life with these people. [Those lost] just can’t be forgotten.”

Living Memorials

The memorial grove at the Congressional Cemetery will be the first of nine groves to be installed. So far, 16 of the 164 trees have been planted, said William Fecke, manager of the cemetery. He said he anticipates the rest of the trees will be planted by mid-November.

The site at Kingman Island will be the anchor, with smaller grove sites spread throughout D.C. within each of the eight wards. Barry Goodinson, executive director of Greenspaces for D.C., said the groves are being worked on “in groups.” Following the site at the cemetery, the next groves to be started will be in Wards 2 and 4.

“We sent out a request to community groups, civic associations, etc., and asked them to nominate a park or public green space in their ward to be the ward’s 9/11 memorial grove location,” Goodinson said. “We then had a jury of folks who basically judged them according to certain criteria.”

Some of the criteria necessary for the grove sites were accessibility, access to water for the plants and a “presence of some kind of group in place that could provide ongoing support to the project after it’s installed, but also partner with us during the planning and installation of the grove,” Goodinson said.

The cemetery site in Ward 6 will cost about $100,000 in all, with $30,000 coming from the USDA Forest Service, Goodinson said. The remaining balance will be raised from foundations, individuals and businesses.

However, before the poles settle in at their permanent destination, they will be displayed in the south parking lot of the Pentagon until they are moved to the Congressional Cemetery on Thursday. The cemetery, the resting place for the deceased of 12 different tribes, seemed a logical location to house the poles until the main grove site is ready. Also, the timing of the totem’s arrival coordinates well with the opening of the National Museum of the American Indian, as a large number of American Indians will be traveling to the nation’s capital to tour the museum.

Dillard said she feels it is a great honor that the Lummi Nation created the Liberty and Freedom poles because “the Indian nations respect their elders, they respect death and they honor people.” The wings of the two eagles on the totem’s crosspiece each have seven feathers, honoring those who were lost in the crash of Flight 77.

“We have the power to heal,” James said at the ceremony. “The totem poles are not sacred — it’s the sacredness inside all of us, uniting us.”