The BC government is making amends to the Hesquiaht First Nation for the wrongful hanging of one of their ancestors 143 years ago.
B.C. Aboriginal Relations Minister Ida Chong is delivering a notice of regret in person to Hesquiaht officials on Nov. 17 in Port Alberni at Maht Mahs gym. In her speech, Chong says that the government “regrets” the hanging of John Anietsachist and a man from Mowachaht in 1869 at Friendly Cove.
“It’s not a full apology. They say they regret that our people were made to watch a gross indecency,” Hesquiaht member Richard Lucas said. “We accept that though, because they weren’t the government of the day when it happened. It was the colonial government.”
Discussions about making amends have gone on for more than a year, Chong said in an interview with the News. Her predecessor, MLA Mary Polak, got the government machinery moving that led to Saturday’s upcoming announcement.
Making amends for the past allows everyone to start taking steps into the future, Chong said. “More than anything else this is culturally appropriate and affords the families some closure,” she said.
The expression of regret is not a full apology because few records about the incident can be found. Therefore a complete accounting of the facts isn’t available to determine whether a full apology is warranted or not, Chong said.
The arc of events leading to Saturday’s apology began in 1869 when Anietsachist and his wife found the bodies of a couple who died in a shipwreck on the West Coast. Anietsachist and a man from Mowachaht were ultimately blamed for the couple’s deaths.
Medical officials exhumed the couple’s bodies and a subsequent autopsy found no evidence of murder. But conflicting testimony from two tribe members sealed the fates of Anietsachist and the other man.
Military officials were dispatched to Hesquiaht aboard the MHS Sparrowhawk to retrieve the pair. The Hesquiaht wouldn’t surrender them, so marines fired on the village with their ship’s cannons then burned the settlement.
Anietsachist and his friend from Mowachaht surrendered and were brought to court in Victoria. “They were found guilty in five minutes then sentenced to hang,” said Hesquiaht member Tim Paul, Anietsachist’s grandson.
Government officials returned the men to Hesquiaht, where they were hanged in front of their families.
The great-great-grandson of the captain of the MHS Sparrowhawk who brought the men back to Hesquiaht to be hanged is coming from the United States to attend Saturday’s ceremony, Lucas said.
The incident is part of the Hesquiaht’s oral narrative handed down through the generations. Pursuing amends hastened in 2008 when a memorial carved pole was raised at Homiss near Estevan Point in honour of Anietsachist.
Making amends has been a long time coming, and writes a new chapter into the oral history, Paul said. “It’s a big step from where we were — sitting and talking about getting an apology,” he said. “It’s finally come to be and it’s about time.”