Shortly after the 2001 terrorist attacks, Jewel Praying Wolf James, master carver from the House of Tears Carvers of the Lummi Nation, began a totem pole project with the intent to help heal people suffering from the experience of 9/11. In the first three years following the attacks, James and the Lummi Nation, working with several other tribes, created totem poles representing healing, honoring, liberty and freedom. The completed Healing Poles Project is comprised of 5 poles raised at the three terrorist attack sites where planes crashed on 9/11.
In 2002, carvers from the Lummi Nation crafted a 13-feet high red cedar Healing Pole and presented it for families of the victims at the site of the World Trade Center. It is now permenantly located at Sterling Forest, just north of Manhattan. The pole is carved from a 140-year-old cedar log. At the top of the pole is a bald eagle, representing the fathers who died at the World Trade Center. In the center is a bear, representing the mothers. At the bottom is a bear cub, for the concept of healing through hope, and the gifts of life, liberty and pursuit of happiness.
A year later the Lummi delivered an Honoring Pole to the Shanksville, PA site where United Airlines Flight 93 crashed after the passengers tried to take control of the hijacked plane from terrorists. The large pole depicts a bear holding a human being. Master carver Jewel James said he chose this design because the passengers “had to have the strength of a bear to do what they did.” The theme of the Honoring Pole is: “We have not forgotten.” The pole is intended to honor not only to the families of those lost on Flight 93, but also to past and present members of America’s armed forces.
The last poles that comprise this project, the Liberty and Freedom Poles, were received at the Pentagon in September, 2004. The Liberty pole depicts a female bear with a “grandmother moon” in her abdomen. The Freedom pole depicts a male bear with “grandfather sun.”
The 34-foot Sovereignty crossbar joining the latter two poles has eagles carved on each end, with two sets of seven feathers representing American Airlines Flight 77 that crashed near the Pentagon on 9/11. The female eagle symbolizes peace, and the male symbolizes war. The poles honor those who lost their lives on 9/11, their families and men and women in uniform that gave their lives for our freedom and liberty — policeman, firemen, soldiers. All of the healing poles are painted red, black, white, and yellow to represent the four races of man and acknowledge that people of all races were victims of the attacks.
An important part of the healing associated with these totem poles occurred as they crossed the US from the Lummi Nation in the state of Washington to each of the crash sites. During their journey, the poles made stops in nearly 40 American Indian Nations where they were prayed over and blessed by tribes. Many of these tribes also helped transport the poles for presentation to those most deeply impacted by the 9/11 attacks.
In the presentation of each of the Healing Poles and the subsequent interviews, Jewel James discussed the fact that he drew from his personal experiences and the spiritual and historical expereince of grief among Native people in creating the poles. In one interview, James said, “I know what grief is. We live in grief. Natives have learned to deal with grief. You have to find acceptance. Healing comes with acceptance.” He is empathetic toward loss and his work is intended to help heal the pain that comes from difficult memories and grief. I think it is beautiful that he was able to draw upon his culture and traditions to bring strength and comfort to other Americans.
More than 80 people from the Lummi and other Nations helped harvest, prepare, carve and paint the healing poles. They are beautiful and powerful works of art and help to make the healing spirit public. Thousands of people have read about or visitied the poles and have been helped in their grief. Jewel James was honored as an Ambassador for Peace in 2004. This appointment along with a National Crown of Peace Award was presented for his tribe’s efforts toward peace and reconciliation, which is expressed through their artwork.