Ryan Taylor The repatriation of Sook Sias


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By Ryan Taylor

Genealogical society volunteers do many kinds of work, and sometimes they find themselves going into impenetrable thickets.

Margaret Chapman, a newspaper indexer for the Campbell River (B.C.) Genealogy Society, showed Candy-Lea Chickite a 1933 item about the penitentiary death of Sook Sias, identified as a native from Cortes Island. Candy-Lea is a local band member, and she did not recognize his as a Cortes Island name.

She began by obtaining his death certificate, but it was uninformative. No cause of death was given.

This led to a long search for the identity of this forgotten convict. The story of his crime and trial were easy to locate in federal court files. Among other sources, Chickite used Hugh Armstrong's online site for BC convicts.

Among the sad facts she unearthed were petitions from the Laichkwiltach Nation bands in 1931 and again in early 1933, asking for his release. These were on compassionate grounds, as his wife was dying and he was ill. This was refused. His wife died without seeing him and he died in prison too.

She also found that Sook Sias was her husband's great-uncle.

This led Chickite to wonder where he had been buried. The penitentiary in New Westminster had been closed and the land redeveloped.

Chickite is a real genealogist, and she kept on the trail. She found Tony Martin, a former guard at the pen. He had access to some records, including the penitentiary cemetery plan. The stones in the cemetery had only the men's prisoner numbers, not their names.

Martin described how the neighboring ravine had eroded in 1955, requiring the reburial of some bodies. Inmates from the pen did the work. Some bodies were reinterred in potato sacks.

But had the cemetery survived? Lawyer Deborah McIntosh said her apartment overlooked the old pen site. She could see the wildly overgrown cemetery from her window. She told Chickite, "Those guys deserve a decent place to be buried."

The BC cemetery authority acted quickly when asked about the plot. Local municipal workmen were sent to clean it up, but when they arrived, they couldn't find a thing. Through the wonders of modern electronics, the foreman phoned the authority in Victoria. Holding up his digital telephone, he sent his contact a picture of where he was and she was able to direct him to the correct tree. Sook Sias' stone was located.

On 10 July, the Campbell River band sponsored a ceremony to bring Sook Sias home for burial in the Spit Cemetery beside his sister. "We are setting him free in spirit," said Chickite.

Months of preparation went into this very special occasion. Women made button blankets and vests, and woven cedar bark headpieces. There were embroideries showing a pattern of bears, representative of Sook Sias' father's house and noble lineage. Chickite designed a special eagle and salmon motif for her blanket.

A bentwood box was created to bury him in, carved by a relative who is also a prisoner.

There were mourning songs, drummers and singers. Sook Sias' story was told, and Chapman, Martin and McIntosh were thanked for their help.

The lunch which followed was the modern form of a potlatch, which took the rest of the day, with other celebrations called a P'Sah.

Captain George Quocksister, Sook Sias' grandnephew, acted for the family in organizing this emotional and triumphant event. All the surrounding bands, who had petitioned the government on Sook Sias' behalf in 1931, attended, making a crowd of 700 people.

The repatriation of Sook Sias was made possible by genealogical volunteers and the best kind of research. The result was an occasion the family will never forget. I asked Chickite, "What would Sook Sias say if he knew?" She only shook her head and smiled.

Posted July 20, 2004
Column copyright © 2004 Ryan Taylor

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