The Man Behind The Masks
The Legacy of Chief Billy Assu
Pasala - Chief Billy Assu
Born in 1867 in a communal big house at Cape Mudge, Chief Billy belonged to the Eagle Clan (maternal) and the Wolf Clan (paternal). He was the son of Klem Kolass also known as Charlie Assu and the nephew of Chief Wamaish, who had two sons including Nagahu, his rightful heir, and a younger brother who lacked leadership qualities and did not aspire towards chieftainship.
As a young boy, Billy Assu displayed great physical strength and was an accomplished speaker, demonstrating excellent judgement and leadership skills. When his cousin Nagahu dies at a very young age, Chief Wamaish hosts a very big potlatch in Billy’s honour. Here he bestows his deceased son’s name to Billy, and tells all present that he had chosen Billy as legal heir to his position. Five years later Chief Wamaish called the Five Nations of the West Coast of Vancouver Island together to once again honour young Billy and confirm his position as legal heir.
With the approval of the other chiefs, Billy begins an intense training period, learning and mastering the complex details of all Kwakiutl social and ceremonial life and gains great knowledge on the meanings of traditional songs and dances and the ways of the Elders. He was encouraged to learn as well, the behaviour of the recently arrived non-native settlers. This is perhaps one of his greatest achievements, for it this knowledge that later enables him to help his people move from a traditional lifestyle to that of a highly industrialized and competitive society.
In 1891, his beloved uncle, the great Chief Wamaish dies, leaving a 24 year old Billy as Chief. One of his first acts was to obtain the assistance of a teacher/missionary. Before long, a school house was built and English lessons were provided to the entire community, young and old.
With his extensive knowledge of the white man’s ways, Chief Assu was able to barter for better wages for his people at the local canneries and fairer prices for fish, negotiating as well for recognition by the Government for the right to fish with the same modern equipment as the non-native fleet.
With progress came challenges and none more great than those which alcohol presented. Recognizing its potential effect, a vigilance committee headed by Chief Assu was formed and a system of arrests and fines established. Beach patrols prevented whisky traders from landing and ruthless punishment was meted out to any peddlers caught on the reserve.
Chief Billy was known for the many potlatches he gave – several hundred small ones and two exceptionally large ones, including one with 3,000 guests lasting over three weeks! During this celebration, 6,000 blankets were given away along with two dozen canoes and 100 gold and 200 silver bracelets. In 1910, Chief Jim Naknakim bestowed upon him the name “Pasala” meaning “to give many potlatches”.
By 1922 Chief Assu had been called before the court in Alert Bay three times for participating in potlatches during the Anti-Potlatch ban. In a negotiated settlement which saw ceremonial regalia confiscated, he had 108 pieces taken of which only 17 have been returned, the remainder sold to collectors and institutions around the world. Many of the items had been carved by Billy’s close friend, Mongo Martin, leading notorious Indian Agent William Halliday to write that Chief Assu’s collection was “most outstanding and very very valuable”.
Chief Assu guided his people, leading them to form a company of workers to log their own rich stands of timber, a wise alternative to the exploitation typical of many non-native companies at the time. Revenue from these operations was used to build individual modern homes with electricity and running water, making Cape Mudge Village the first to be equipped with such.
Chief Assu’s achievements were remarkable, and in 1937 in recognition of services rendered in the span of two generations, he was awarded a coronation medal by King George VI, and then again decorated by Queen Elizabeth in 1953 for his meritorious service. It was however, a shield presented to him in 1949 that became his most prized possession inscribed….
“A token of appreciation from his people of Cape Mudge for his outstanding personality and outstanding abilities”
Chief Billy Assu is remembered as a great leader who was able to skillfully manoeuvre his people into modernity while never severing the link to the impressive, rich cultural traditions that had sustained his people since time immemorial.
Pictured to the right, Chief Assu stands in his Big House located in the Village of Cape Mudge. Behind him, his majestic house posts which after more than 87 years have been returned to the community on long-term loan from the Canadian Museum of History in Ottawa.
Chief Assu recorded over 100 potlatch songs with
Dr. Ida Halpbern, some of which you will find on our website, including the two on this panel.