Keith Thor Carlson: Uncovers historical injustice involving aboriginal youth

Historians in the News

Information uncovered by a University of Saskatchewan historian shows an aboriginal youth who was hung for murder was innocent of the crime. Assistant professor Keith Thor Carlson's research is the subject of a documentary entitled The Lynching of Louie Sam that was shown Wednesday night on campus.

In 1884, an angry mob of men dressed in their wives' frocks, their faces streaked with aboriginal ceremonial paint, charged across the Canada-U.S. border from Washington to British Columbia, looking to kill.

They were looking for Louie Sam, a 14-year-old boy from the Sto:lo band on the Sumas reserve, who they believed was responsible for the murder of James Bell, a Washington shopkeeper who was shot in the head. Bell's store was burned and $100 worth of gold coins was stolen.

The mob found Sam in Canadian police custody, stole him away and hanged him from a tree just north of the border.

"I hope (viewers will) take from it that history is still important to people," Carlson said. "There are consequences of history that carry forward into the future, into the present . . . that are still meaningful that we need to address."

Carlson began working on the case in 1992 while he was living in Victoria and working as a research consultant for First Nations organizations. The Sto:lo people asked Carlson to look into the legend of a tree where it was rumoured the youth was lynched.

"What I found was a treasure trove of documents that described and analyzed this event in detail, beginning with a coroner's inquest where aboriginal people themselves testified, to these two undercover detectives who went into the United States and spent two weeks down there posing as farm labourers, collecting all kinds of information about who was involved in the original crime the boy was blamed for, and who organized the lynch mob that killed the boy to cover their tracks in the original murder," Carlson said.

Sam's death sparked a near race war as aboriginals fled the village where the teen was killed and talked about hanging an American from the same tree, or killing one American for every member of the mob who killed Sam.

The B.C. government placated the Sto:lo band by promising to track down Sam's killers and try them in Canada, Carlson said.

The U.S. wouldn't co-operate with Canada, and eventually Canadian police let the crime fade into history unpunished.

Reports Carlson found from undercover Canadian police officers indicate the lover of Bell's estranged wife and his brother-in-law plotted Bell's demise. The men brought Sam down to the U.S. under the false pretense of a job offer to provide witnesses with an easy scapegoat, Carlson said.

Following the documentary's showings at the Vancouver and Toronto International Film Festivals, B.C. Lt.-Gov. Iona Campagnolo brought the injustice to the attention of Washington Lt.-Gov. Brad Owen during his September visit to Victoria.

"Our government spent years seeking justice in the case without effect," she said.

"Today, the issue is still one contention between the Sto:lo people and our government. . . . The Sto:lo seek a formal apology for the murder from our two jurisdictions."

Read entire article at Star Pheonix (Canada)

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