Su-á-pu-luck– A man on the threshold of change

This is a guest post by Rachel Ivey,  graduate in Environmental Science McGill University. You can see the rest of the articles in this series about Indigenous justice champions here. The image is of what’s known as the Joe Capilano Blanket, which Su-á-pu-luck wore on his trip to England to lobby King Edward VII.

In 1854 a boy  named Su-á-pu-luck was born.  He was the  son of Letekwámcheten of  Yekw’ts, near what is now known as Squamish, BC. He became  known as Chief Joe Capilano, fighter of Indigenous rights. 

At the time of Su-á-pu-luck’s birth, most Squamish were still living according to their traditional ways. . Canada had yet to be established as a country;  there were fewer than 4000 non-Indigenous folks living in the area now known as British Colombia. But with the gold rush in the 1850s and the railway connecting the newly formed country in the 1880s, Su-á-pu-luck saw great changes that transformed his Nation over his lifetime. 

Little is known about Su-á-pu-luck’s early years, but due to the influence of Roman Catholic missionaries that lived amongst the Indigenous peoples of the lower mainland in the 1860s, Su-á-pu-luck was likely  influenced by their teaching. On the day that he married his wife, Mary Agnes Líxwelut, he was also baptized. The pair lived on an exclusively Catholic missionary reserve now known as North Vancouver. He worked as a labourer in lumber mills, as well as working as  a carver and a stevedore. Amongst the white settlers, Su-á-pu-luck gained the name “Háyas Joe”, meaning big, strong, and powerful.  

In 1895, Chief Láwa, a Squamish hereditary chief, died and left  no clear successor. Meanwhile, many Squamish people were leaving the mission reserve. These were Indigenous People who didn’t want to follow the teachings of the missionaries; moving to X̱wemelch’stn – the Capilano reserve – which didn’t have the same restrictions on traditional belief systems and ways of life. It is believed that the Catholic Missionaries influenced who would inherit Chief Láwa’s title with the hope that the new Chief would convert his people to the Christian belief. Su-á-pu-luck was a devoted Christian at the time, and became chief in 1895. As chief, he did not enforce the Christian belief as rigorously as the Mission reserve, allowing for a multi-belief community to develop. 

As the established hereditary Chief of the Capilano reserve, Su-á-pu-luck became more involved in issues pertaining to the rights of Indigenous peoples. The Indigenous people of the area had lost much of their land and were being increasingly restrained from carrying out their traditional practices as a result of strict hunting and fishing regulations and the restrictions imposed by the Indian Act – a piece of legislation designed to assimilate Indigenous peoples by stripping them of their rights. . Su-á-pu-luck travelled across Vancouver Island and the mainland coast to speak out against repression and injustice; he worked to gain the attention of  Vancouver newspapers which were able to transmit his message to a larger audience. 

Su-á-pu-luck reached the peak of his activist career in 1906 when he led a delegation of Indigenous leaders to Ottawa to see Prime Minister Sir Wilfred Laurier; the chiefs then went on  to London to petition the King of England and express  their grievances. Before his departure, the cousin of his wife, Musqueam, told Su-á-pu-luck that he needed a family name to see the King and that he should use the much respected name Kiyapalanexw (Sa7plek) — anglicized to Capilano.  From this point he was known as Chief Joe Capilano. His delegation included Secwepemc Chief Basil Davidand Chief Chillihitza of Okanagan; together, they told the story of marginalization and repression that was being carried out against Indigenous Peoples despite the fact that they had not signed Treaties with the Crown nor ceded their lands to colonial powers. 

The petition insisted that their Aboriginal title rights to land had never been extinguished and that the increasing number of settlers encroaching onto their land had been done without the approval of the rightful owners. Appeals to the Canadian government had been futile; Indigenous people lacked the right to vote according to the Indian Act, rendering them  unable to participate in the democratic process to elect a government that would act in their best interest. Nor were they consulted by Indian agents on matters that deeply affected their lives, such as the banning of the potlach which had formed the centrepiece of governance in their territories since time immemorial.  

In the end, the King ruled that this was a matter for the Canadian government; nothing concrete was done by the King in response to their petition. But the trip did provide much publicity for the cause of Indigenous nations, demonstrating that Indigneous people were willing to take political action to face down injustice. 

Upon his return from England, Chief Capilano expelled the Roman Catholic Church from the Capilano reserve. Chief Capilano continued to fight for the rights of his people and other Indigenous people, organizing a meeting of the southern and northern tribes in 1907 and to Skeena River in 1908 to urge the people to assert their claims of sovereignty and to resist colonial encroachment. . The success of his pursuit for equal and upheld rights can be measured by the Vancouver newspapers’ reference to him as  “nuisance”, with calls for his arrest and prosecution coming from government officials. 

Chief Capilano’s legacy continued into his elderhood.  Alongside his wife Mary Líxwelut, he shared traditional Squamish stories with Mohawk poet  E. Pauline Johnson,  who has said  that Chief Capilano’s and Mary Líxwelut’s stories were so integral to her  book “Legends of Vancouver” that she had wanted to name it Legends of Capilano. 

Su-á-pu-luck was not born of particularly special circumstances. He did not inherit his title as chief. But he took a stand against the injustices being committed against his community, and used the position that he was given to organize Indigenous leaders to  to assert their rights, laying the groundwork for pan-Indigenous political institutions such as the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs. 

Chief Su-á-pu-luck died in 1910 of tuberculosis. He was the father of 12 children, including carver and chief Mathias Capilano, who was the first Indigenous person in Canada to cast a ballot in a federal election. 

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