HOW SOOK SIAS FOUND HIS WAY HOME
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.
A 1906 mugshot of prisoner # 991, Sook Sias.