Beothuk remains returned to Newfoundland after 191 years in Scotland

The remains of a Beothuk couple that were taken from a grave in central Newfoundland and sent to Scotland almost two centuries ago have been returned to their home province.

The skulls of Nonosabasut and Demasduit were repatriated at a sombre ceremony Wednesday evening at The Rooms, the province’s archive and museum in St. John’s.

“This is for me a sacred moment in our history,” said Chief Mi’sel Joe of the Miawpukek First Nation in Conne River, who began the campaign to return the remains about five years ago.

Premier Dwight Ball and leaders from the province’s five Indigenous groups were at the ceremony.

“Just a few hours ago the remains arrived here at The Rooms,” said Ball. “After almost 200 years they are finally home.”

Remains taken by Scottish explorer

Demasduit was kidnapped by a European fur trapper in March 1819, in retaliation for an alleged theft by her tribe.

Nonosabasut was killed as he tried to rescue his wife, who was given the name Mary March by her English captors.

The killing and capture came at a time when the number of Beothuk people was dwindling, and the group was on the verge of extinction.

Demasduit was taken to Twillingate, and later to St. John’s, where she lived with her captor, John Peyton Jr.

She died of tuberculosis in January 1820, and was returned to Beothuk land to be buried at Red Indian Lake, where Nonosabasut was also buried.

Years later, William Cormack, a Scottish-educated Newfoundland explorer, retrieved the two skulls and some grave items, which eventually made their way to Edinburgh.

They’re almost home. They’re not quite home yet. They are in this museum.– Mi’sel Joe

Demasduit and Nonosabasut were aunt and uncle to Shanawdithit, traditionally described as the last known Beothuk. Shanawdithit died in June 1829 in St. John’s, also of tuberculosis.

‘Reminder of what colonialism can do’

Wednesday night, NunatuKavut president Todd Russell asked people to remember how the Beothuk nation disappeared.

“Reflect upon this sad and tragic and horrific period in our history and how that came to be in any day, in any age, is unacceptable. It is a stark reminder of what colonialism can do and has done,” he said.

On Wednesday, NunatuKavut president Todd Russell asked people to remember how the Beothuk nation disappeared. (Mark Quinn/ CBC)

Joe began the push to have the Beothuk remains returned in 2015.

In February 2016, Ball wrote National Museums Scotland to request the return of the remains, but that request was denied. The museum said it didn’t meet criteria set out in Scottish legislation for the repatriation of remains. It said it would only return remains to direct descendents.

Mélanie Joly, who was the federal heritage minister at the time, notified the director of National Museums Scotland that Canada would make a formal demand for the remains in August 2016.

Leaders representing all Indigenous groups in Newfoundland and Labrador signed a letter requesting the return of the remains in May 2017.

Wednesday evening, Joe thanked Ball for helping to bring the Beothuk remains back to Newfoundland, but he gently corrected Ball’s assertion that they are now home. Joe would like the remains to be re-buried, but in such a way that they can’t be disturbed again.

“They’re almost home. They’re not quite home yet,” he said. “They are in this museum. I know that we have a long way to go and we have a long discussion to take place and I’m sure it’s not going to be easy discussions, but we will get there.”

Chief Mi’sel Joe of the Miawpukek First Nation in Conne River made the first push, in 2015, to have the remains brought back to Canada. (@owl_eastern/Twitter)

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

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