It was 1869, and the two Hesquiaht First Nations men had just stumbled upon a shipwreck and the bodies of a man and woman who had died when their boat capsized. Despite an autopsy showing no evidence of murder, the two men were hanged after a short trial—in front of their families.
Flash forward 143 years: The family finally got some closure on November 16 when the British Columbia government made amends with the Hesquiaht First Nation for the wrongful, and very public, hanging of their two ancestors. More than 400 Hesquiaht members gathered in Port Alberni to hear British Columbia Aboriginal Affairs Minister Ida Chong read a statement of regret.
“In 1869, justice of the day was carried out in a harsh and violent manner to two of your ancestors – John Anietsachist and Katkinna,” Chong said. “On behalf of the government of British Columbia, I wish to express our sincere regret that your homeland was forced to bear witness to such violence.”
A statement of regret and not a full apology was in order, Chong later told Indian Country Today Media Network.
“Because few records about the incident can be found, a complete accounting of the facts isn’t available,” Chong said. “More than anything else though, this is culturally appropriate and affords the families some closure now.”
That the government came this far was enough for the Hesquiaht people, tribal member Richard Lucas said. Hesquiaht is part of the Nuu-chah-nulth Nations.
“We accept that because they weren’t the government of the day when it happened,” he told ICTMN. “It was the colonial government.”
The arc of events began in 1869, when Anietsachist and Katkinna were convicted of murdering a man and a woman who died aboard the ship John Bright. It had capsized in a storm near Hesquiaht harbour on the West Coast of Vancouver Island. Although the Hesquiaht insisted that those on the ship had died when the boat capsized, the colonial governor of British Columbia held that there had been survivors and that the Hesquiaht had killed them.
Autopsies found no evidence of murder, but officials dispatched marines to Hesquiaht aboard the MHS Sparrowhawk to retrieve the pair. Upon arrival, the ship fired on the village with the ship's cannons, then burned the settlement.
Anietsachist and Katkinna 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. Last Saturday, Anietsachist's great, great, great grandson Victor Amos—who now bears his name—expressed forgiveness and brought an end to a bitter resentment that endured for more than a century.
“If we don't forgive as a family, then that becomes a cancer of the heart, and it will eat you alive,” Amos said. “But it's more than just a hanging that we forgive for.”
Not only were Anietsachist and Katkinna hung in front of their families, but the gallows were left standing for five years, and a Hesquiaht leader was removed from his house.
“My grandfather paid the ultimate price—with his life.” Amos said. “We have to forgive, and we forgive all of the people who played a role.”
The Hesquiaht quest for justice started eight years ago and would never have stopped, Amos said. “We didn't want the history books to show that my grandfather was a murderer,” he said, adding that the incident has been a part of the Hesquiaht’s oral narrative for generations. “My grandfather composed a song that he sang before he was hung and we kept it alive.”
The sense of closure remained incomplete, though. Little is known about Katkinna, the second man who was hung, Amos said. The other half of the events in 1869 was Henry Mist, who was captain of the HMS Sparrowhawk, the ship that transported Anietsachist and Katkinna to their deaths in Hesquiaht.
It wasn't just Anietsachist's ancestors who found closure with the statement. Mist's descendant did as well. Erik Kiaer traveled to Port Alberni from his home in Portland, Oregon, where he works as a business consultant, to attend the ceremony.
Kiaer, 47, discovered that Mist was his great-great-great grandfather while doing family research last spring. “Other people have ancestors who were sea captains, and they create their own myths about them,” Kiaer said. “I didn't exactly brag about mine.”
The married father of one was introduced to Hesquiaht members for the first time in September. “It's fascinating to me that there is a human dimension to this that has endured, and that four to five generations later our ancestors paths cross again,” he said. “It's an eye-opener that the actions of your ancestors can have such an impact on others.”
Kiaer says it's impossible not to feel some sense of guilt about what happened in 1869. “It's nothing I did, but I'm representative of it,” he said. If there was anything that stood out, Kiaer said, it was hearing Anietsachist's song performed by the Hesquiaht on Saturday.
“Captain Mist would have heard it the first time it was sung and not understood it,” Kiaer said. “Now we're at a place where we understand its meaning, and where amends are being made for what happened.”