Assu, Billy

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Assu, Billy

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  • Chief Billy Assu
  • M̓ax̱w̕ma̱wisag̱a̱me̕
  • Yax̓nekwa̕as

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Chief, Fisherman, Artist - Billy Assu was born in Cape Mudge (Wiweḵa̕yi) on Quadra Island in 1867. Within the kinship and clan structures of Kwakwa̱ka̱̕wakw society Billy Assu belonged to the Eagle Clan on his mother’s side and to the Wolf clan on his father’s. His father was Charlie Assu (Chief Ka̱mḵolas), a renowned poet and song maker. He was raised to become chief of the We-Wai-Kai (Wiwaḵa̕yi) peoples, a group of the Lekwiltok (lig̱wiłda̕x̱w) tribes of the Kwakwa̱ka̱̕wakw peoples. The Kwakwa̱ka̱̕wakw peoples are identified as speakers of Kwak̕wala. The physical location of the We-Wai-Kai (Wiwaḵa̕yi) is closely attached to Billy Assu’s identity. The Kwakwa̱ka̱̕wakw peoples range from Cape Flattery to the Douglas Channel. Lekwiltok (Lig̱wiłda̕x̱w), is the Kwak̕wala term for the "Southern Kwakiutl" people of Quadra Island and Campbell River (Wiweḵ̕am). The Lekwiltok (Lig̱wiłda̕x̱w) are comprised of seven interrelated subgroups including the We-Wai-Kai. The We-Wai-Kai’s principal village is known as Cape Mudge, (Yax̱alta), situated on the western shore of Quadra Island across Discovery Passage from Campbell River (Wiweḵ̕am). It is located in Indian Reserve number ten of the twelve originally assigned to the Lekwiltok (Lig̱wiłda̕x̱w) by the Department of Indian Affairs in 1901.

With the approval of the local leadership an old chief, Waniss, adopted Billy Assu with the goal of training him to be a chief. He was made responsible to learn the complex of traditions and ceremony that support Wiwaḵa̕yi society. He learned the appropriate use of titles, crests, and prerogatives, and the proper context for ceremonial dance and other arts. Assu became known for the many potlatches he gave. They numbered in the hundreds and included two particularly large ones. His father gave him a potlatch as a child to give him his first name, Ya-kin-akwas, meaning, “to give a guest a blanket.” At fourteen his father gave him a still bigger one, giving him the name M̓ax̱w̕ma̱wisag̱a̱me̕, meaning “giving away lots of things.” One particular potlatch, celebrating the building of his Big House involved sixteen families, with over three thousand people, to whom he acted as host for three weeks. In 1891, in his early twenties, Billy Assu assumed the role of chief of his people. Assu assumed leadership at a time when industrial capitalism was applying its focus on local resources. Assu encouraged his community to apply themselves in the local canning factories and logging camps. Assu built the first modern style house in his village in 1897 and in the 1920s he oversaw the replacement of remaining longhouses with modern housing. Assu was a fisherman for much of his life and during the 1930s Assu helped implement the Pacific Coast Native Fishermen’s Association. This organization later merged with the Native Brotherhood of B.C. He fished for BC Packers, Ltd. for 49 years and his seiner, BCP NO 45, was pictured on the Canadian 5-dollar bill. His memoirs, Assu of Cape Mudge, were published in 1989. Assu also spent considerable time resisting the social disease of alcohol addiction. For a time he insisted his community be completely dry. Assu adjusted his people’s ongoing relationship with Christianity and distant government control under the Indian Act. He recognized the difficulty of resisting these forces and their disdain of local custom and social practice such as the potlatch. He reluctantly curtailed potlatches. In response to federal legislation he began destroying potlatch houses and sent considerable amounts of ceremonial artifacts to the National Museum in Ottawa. He explained to Ida Halpern how he secretly kept some important potlatch memorabilia. He strongly believed the potlatch would someday return. For his cooperation Assu was twice awarded decorations from royalty: in 1937 by George VI and in 1953 by Queen Elizabeth. In 1947 Assu welcomed Ida Halpern to his Cape Mudge home and performed 87 songs for her to record for academic study and posterity. The recordings represent the first and most complete physical documentation of his community’s ceremonial and personal songs. At the age of 98, at Campbell River Hospital, Assu passed away of natural causes, February 18, 1965: . He was buried in the Cape Mudge Cemetery, (Cape Mudge, B.C.). His son Harry Assu succeeded him as the first democratically elected Chief in his community.


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Created: RFROGNER 2014-02-03
Revised: RFrogner 2015-12-08




Central Name Authority Files (adapted for SRDB use).
John Inglis and Harry Assu, Assu of Cape Mudge, Vancouver, UBC Press, 1989;
Robert Galois, Kwakwa̱ka̱̕wakw Settlements, 1775-1920: A Geographical Analysis and Gazetteer, Vancouver, UBC Press, 1994
Ida Halpern fonds

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