HOW SOOK SIAS FOUND HIS WAY HOME

Vancouver Sun - - British Columbia - BY RANDY SHORE VAN­COU­VER SUN

When Sook Sias shot Long Jack at Greene Point, B. C., in 1892, it was the be­gin­ning of an odyssey that took him twice to prison and fi­nally saw him buried on that same beach near Toba In­let 115 years later.

Carol Quock­sis­ter, a first na­tions hered­i­tary princess, held the re­mains of Sook Sias aloft on the bow of the boat so that he could see that he was fi­nally home. Sias was not alone on his jour­ney. While work­ing on an archival project for the Camp­bell River Mu­seum, ama­teur ge­neal­o­gist Candy- Lea Chick­ite came across a news­pa­per clip­ping from the Co­mox Argus. It con­tained a two- para­graph syn­op­sis of the life and death of Sias, who was de­scribed as a “ Cortez Is­land In­dian.”

“ That just struck me as wrong,” said Chick­ite from her Camp­bell River home. Sook Sias, which the Argus has mis­spelled as Sais, is not a Sal­ish name, rather it is from the Laichk­wiltach com­mu­nity. Chick­ite’s step­son has the same name, from his mother’s side of the fam­ily hail­ing from Knight’s In­let. It stuck like a splin­ter in her mind. Never mind that the clip­ping hinted at a life of high drama. Sias was twice con­demned to hang and twice re­prieved, his sec­ond brush with the hang­man com­ing af­ter he shot the star wit­ness at his first trial. He also en­dured mind- numb­ing bore­dom over four decades in the B. C. Pen­i­ten­tiary at New West­min­ster.

Sias was buried at the Pen af­ter his death in 1933. But his jour­ney did not end there.

Nagged by the splin­ter, or per­haps the spirit of Sook Sias him­self, Chick­ite was driven to learn the truth. She searched the B. C. Archives on­line and found a death record for Johnny Sook Sias Hill. She would later learn, af­ter ca­jol­ing clerks in Van­cou­ver, New West­min­ster, Ottawa and Vic­to­ria to blow the dust off dozens of records in the De­part­ment of In­dian Af­fairs, the Na­tional Archives, the 1881 Cen­sus, the New West­min­ster Pub­lic Li­brary, the De­part­ment of Jus­tice, Cor­rec­tions Canada and oth­ers, that Johnny Hill was an alias that Sias used.

At first the leads were like smoke. Miss­ing records, creative name spellings and in­cor­rect ages were sprin­kled through­out the records, many of which had not seen day­light for more than 75 years. Ages on the court, prison and death records were all over the map. Chick­ite notes that few first na­tions peo­ple had birth cer­tifi­cates so ages recorded on doc­u­ments were usu­ally a guess, ei­ther by the un­for­tu­nate ar­restee or by the of­fi­cial who typed up the doc­u­ment.

Af­ter about two years of piec­ing to­gether the life of Sook Sias from terse gov­ern­ment records, Chick­ite hit the archival jack­pot and a reve­la­tion that helped ex­plain her su­per­nat­u­ral de­vo­tion to the search. Chick­ite re­ceived a pack­age of doc­u­ments from the Na­tional Ar­chive that in­cluded sev­eral pe­ti­tions sent by In­dian Agents ( lo­cal gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials) in Van­cou­ver and Alert Bay to the De­part­ment of In­dian Af­fairs in Ottawa be­tween 1931 and 1933 ask­ing that Sias be re­leased. The pe­ti­tions were re­fused, with doc­u­ments not­ing that while al­co­hol may have been a fac­tor in his crimes, there was no rea­son to be­lieve that al­co­hol would not be a fac­tor in fu­ture crimes. Sias died Sept. 24, 1933, a cco rd i n g to p rov i n c i a l d e a t h records.

One of the pe­ti­tion­ing let­ters in­cluded the de­tail that Sook Sias was the un­cle of “ John Quock­sistala, the Chief of the Camp­bell River Tribe,” a great- un­cle of Chick­ite’s hus­band Ge­orge Quock­sis­ter.

“ We are ac­tu­ally dis­tant rel­a­tives,” said Chick­ite, more cer­tain than ever that her search was be­ing driven by su­per­nat­u­ral forces. “ Sook must have thought I was his best hope.”

Chick­ite even­tu­ally lo­cated for­mer B. C. Pen book­keeper and un­of­fi­cial his­to­rian Tony Martin, who had in his pos­ses­sion a plot plan of the grave­yard made when the Pen was fi­nally shut down in 1980. He took boxes of records home that were slated to be burned. Among the doc­u­ments that he saved was a map of the ceme­tery.

They lo­cated Sias’s grave and dis­in­terred his re­mains on June 2, 2004. There wasn’t much left. “ Af­ter all that build up, it wasn’t like we un­earthed his skele­ton,” Chikite re­called. “ We found some pieces of bone and square nails of the kind that were made at the prison and used to make coffins.”

In fact, Sias’s re­mains had taken a short jour­ney some 50 years ear­lier. The grave, marked with Sias’s pris­oner num­ber 991, had been ex­posed by ero­sion and was moved in 1955 by a de­tail of con­victs su­per­vised by a guard.

“ When they moved him they scooped up what they found and put it in a potato sack and buried it again,” she said.

She in­sists Sias was urg­ing her on, yearn­ing to be freed from for­eign soil. It is com­mon in first na­tions be­lief sys­tems that the souls of the dead can­not rest away from their homes.

“ I have al­ways been a per­son who needs proof,” Chick­ite said. “ But this just wouldn’t go away; I just couldn’t be­lieve that th­ese things were hap­pen­ing to me.”

Martin says that it was not un­usual for In­dian bands to ap­ply for and re­ceive the re­mains of na­tive pris­on­ers for re­burial on first na­tions land.

Sias was placed in two small boxes in a larger cer­e­mo­nial cedar chest carved by a pris­oner artist known to the fam­ily. The first of the two boxes was buried at the In­dian re­serve in Camp­bell River on Sept. 11, 2004.

“ We had a cer­e­mony and in­vited the peo­ple to hear the story and thank their an­ces­tors for pe­ti­tion­ing for Sias’s re­lease all those years ago,” she said.

The other box sat in Chick­ite’s garage be­side the freezer for three years.

Sook Sias went to his fi­nal rest­ing place, back at Greene Point, last sum­mer in a cer­e­mony that Candy- Lea de­scribes as a highly spir­i­tual pot­latch. Six fam­ily mem­bers at­tended.

COUR­TESY AN­THONY MARTIN COL­LEC­TION

A 1906 mugshot of pris­oner # 991, Sook Sias.

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