Oh Canada, what a country you are! A country filled with culture, history, inventions and of course, famous individuals! Yes, there are many famous Canadians that somewhat help shape the very country we live in. But not all of them are known… It’s true, quite a few Canadians are classed as a famous individual, but only a handful of today’s youth actually know who they are. Let’s take for example Louie Sam. A young Canadian who’s not famous for a deed or invention he made, but more for a tragedy that had fallen upon him. Allow me to educate you and bring you back to the time when the very seeds that made this country were planted. If you haven’t guessed, I’m bringing you to the era of the First Nations.
But first, let me tell you a bit about Louie Sam in order to give you an idea of what, where and when his story took place. Louie Sam was your ordinary young native who was from the Stól:lõ Nation. His tragic story took place on a night of February, in 1884. Long story short, Sam was accused of a murder that occurred in the small town of Nooksack across the U.S. borders. As a result, he was hunted down and lynched on Canadian soil by a mob of angry American pedestrians.
Now that we know a bit more on Sam, allow me to give you small but brief history lesson on the First Nations. This will allow us to understand in depth what kind of people they were and how much our perception towards them changed. Let’s start with what First Nations stands for: it’s simply the name we give to the natives that were (and that still are) living in the lands of what we know as Canada today. It is a historical fact that there were six main groups of the First Nations. There were the Woodland First Nations who mainly lived in the vast forests of the east. Down south, there were the Iroquoian First Nations who were those who lived the furthest in the south and were known to be excellent farmers. In the grasslands of the Prairies, we had the Plains First Nations. Up north, there were the Plateau First Nations whose location would go from semi-desert conditions to high mountains and forests. There were also those that lived alongside of the Pacific Coast known as Pacific Coast First Nations who had access to various kinds of seafood. And finally, we had the first Nations of the Mackenzie and Yukon River Basins who lived in the rigid environment that consisted of dark forests, barren lands and swamps.
Each tribe leader was very often chosen for his remarkable hunting skills. Their main mode of transportation were canoes for lakes and rivers and after their contact with European explorers, horses became a staple for the terrain land. They mainly wore animal skins from various animals such as: moose, deer, caribou, buffalo, antelope and elk. The First Nations also believed that we were meant to live in harmony with Mother Nature and they give her their thanks for giving them what they needed to survive and help shape who they are in their communities. It is without a doubt that they had the utmost respect for the environment. But soon, those traditions and beliefs were set aside by the influences of the European newcomers. Throughout the decades, the First Nations were first seen as great allies for military and commercial purposes. But as the decades went on, the First Nations were more and more pushed off their lands and were labeled as an “inferior” and “uncivilized” race. Later on, they were forced to leave their traditions and ideals behind in order to live on their lands that now belonged to the British Crown.
Now that we have a better image of how the First Nations were seen as, we can now learn more on the clan Louie Sam was a part of. Sam was a member of the B.C. Stól:lõ Nation. This nation was also known as the Fraser River Indians who lived alongside the great Fraser River in British Columbia. They were mainly known for their salmon that was used for meals, ceremonies and trading with the Hudson’s Bay Company. They were a society that had three classes: the upper class, the regular class and the slaves (a class that lasted until the 19th century). It was also a society where one’s family status was extremely important since it predetermined what role they had in the clan. They were natives who lived on longhouses and that used canoes as a means of transportation.
So far, you’ve learned on the First Nations and Sam’s tribe. Now, you will be able to understand more about Sam’s story. Sam was a 14 year old boy who lived in a small Stól:lõ community just a few kilometres from the U.S./Canada border. Sometime in February 1884, Sam had been offered job at a small store in the Nooksack community in the U.S. When he arrived, he was informed that there were no jobs available and so, he returned home. Coincidentally, on that same day, the Nooksack shopkeeper James Bell was shot and his store was burned to the ground. Accused for the murder, Sam was tracked by the local sheriff. But he was able to give his pursuers the slip and made it back into Canada. Sam explained to the leaders of his tribe the situation he was in. Believing in his innocence, they handed him over to the protective custody of Thomas York, a deputized Canadian, hoping that he may be treated fairly. Unfortunately for Sam, a group of about 100 angry Americans had other intentions. With their faces painted black and with women’s clothes on their backs, they marched through the borders and abducted him. The next morning, Sam’s body was found hanging from a tree.
As you can imagine, this caused an uproar that almost started a cross-border race war. Hoping to keep peace at all cost, the Canadian government swore that they would bring Sam’s murderers to justice. And so, British Columbia sent two undercover officers to the South. They discovered that a certain David Harkness and William Osterman were most likely the ones responsible for Bell’s death. Harkness was living with Bell’s ex-wife. They both wanted custody of Bell’s son. Osterman, Harkness’ brother in law, sided with them and was the last one to see Bell alive. Furthermore, both families profited from Bell’s death with his estate and used the money to open a new dry-goods store. Fearing that Sam would get a translator from the Canadian government, they took matters into their own hands. And so, the Stól:lõ entrusted the punishment of the vigilantes and guilty men to both governments.
When the threat of a cross-border war had faded, the governments began lying to the natives saying that they were still looking into the matter. It was only on March 1st, 2006 that Sam’s death was remembered and redressed. The Washington Senate stated that both Washington and B.C. governments of that period “failed to take adequate action to identify the true culprit of the murder and bring the organizers and members of the lynch mob to justice.” And so, this finally put to an end the tragic mystery of Sam’s lynch.
Finally, Louie Sam was a young native who lived in an era where First Nations were still seen as an “inferior” group of society. Because of those ideologies, injustice was made and took more than a century before proper measures were taken. Although these ideologies are from the 19th century, today we still face this injustice and discrimination. How can we ever call this country “our home and native land” when we basically pushed off the natives that were here and claimed their land as our own? We can never change the past and undo what we did. All we can do now is learn from those experiences and try to build a better future for all of us.