NL : After 200 years, stolen skulls return to Lake Beothuk

The Canadian News has learned that the Newfoundland and Labrador government has allocated $250,000 to a new cultural Center at Lake Beothuk, near the communities of Buchans and Millertown, in the center of the province.

The center will serve as a burial site for the remains of the two people, and could be a public site to honor Beothuk heritage, according to provincial Aboriginal Affairs Minister Lisa Dempster.

They will be placed very securely. They will not be exposed. However, there is so much we could do about it [et] which are still in the preliminary stage. »

A quote from Lisa Dempster, Minister of Aboriginal Affairs of Newfoundland and Labrador

There are a number of things we can do to tell these people’s stories, and that’s what we really want to do here.Ms. Dempster said.

Stolen territory, stolen remains

The story is tragic. The Beothuk were the native people of what would become Newfoundland. They suffered in the years following European colonization. They were forced to leave their traditional territory to settle in increasingly reduced spaces, as the colonists spread on the island. Many died of foreign diseases and in violent clashes.

In the 1800s, as their population dwindled, the Beothuk found themselves confined to the interior of the island around Lake Beothuk, formerly known as Red Indian Lake. It was there that a search party led by a well-known settler, John Peyton Sr., encountered a party of Beothuk in March 1819. The settler party of white men was only permitted to scavenge stolen fishing gear, but things quickly turned violent.

While most Beothuk residents scattered after spotting the settlers, a woman named Demasduit was unable to escape in the deep snow. She stepped forward with her newborn to beg their mercy. Instead, Peyton’s men captured her. Her husband, Nonosabasut, then tried to negotiate with the settlers, but was shot. Their baby died within days of Demasduit’s capture.

Demasduit was among the last Beothuk. She was captured by European settlers in 1819, and died shortly thereafter. His remains were stolen and sent to a museum in Scotland, where they remained until 2020.

Photo: Library and Archives Canada

She spent the spring in Saint John, but it was decided that summer to bring her back to her people at Lake Beothuk. After a few unsuccessful attempts, Demasduit contracted tuberculosis while traveling inland in January 1820, and she died in what is now Botwood.

The injustice did not stop there. A few years later, Scottish explorer William Cormack visited the tomb and took the skulls of Demasduit and Nonosabasut, sending them to the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh, where they remained for 200 years.

The skulls were returned in 2020, after a long struggle led by Mi’kmaw Chief Mi’sel Joe of Miawpukek. Since then, they have been stored at The Rooms, a museum and site for the provincial archives in Saint John.

This is not a place where one would want to keep the remains of one’s loved ones. »

A quote from Lisa Dempster, Minister of Aboriginal Affairs of Newfoundland and Labrador

Internal documents shed light on government intentions

Although there has been public debate over what their final resting place should be, Ms Dempster said the decision to return them to Beothuk Lake had the unanimous consent of all five Indigenous groups in the province.

What is now Lake Beothuk, this area, is what made sense. It is their home. That’s where they came from. »

A quote from Lisa Dempster, Minister of Aboriginal Affairs of Newfoundland and Labrador

The precise location has yet to be determined, but Dempster said it will be a new facility, not an enhancement to the existing National Historic Site at Indian Point, along the shore of the Beothuk Lake, in the small community of Millertown.

Ms Dempster said details have yet to be worked out, but a memo obtained through freedom of information requests mentions some suggestions.

The Boyd’s Cove Beothuk Interpretive Center is located near Twillingate in northeastern Newfoundland. The main building is modeled after the “mamateeks” of the Beothuk.

Photo: Courtesy / Town of Twillingate

Much of the text is redacted, but the note states that the facility will need to be air-conditioned and secure, and that if the facility houses the remains, these will not be on display to the general public, as this would be contrary to reconciliation.

The report indicates that one possible format could resemble the Beothuk Interpretive Center at Boyd’s Cove, which was modeled after a mamateekor wigwam, of the Beothuk.

Seek to avoid past mistakes

Many details remain to be ironed out, and Dempster said her government will work with Indigenous groups and towns around Lake Beothuk before finalizing plans.

In the meantime, the government and five indigenous groups have reached an agreement for the latter to stay at The Rooms. They also made another deal: anytime one group wants to see the remains, they have to get consent from all the other groups.

According to Ms. Dempster, one of the indigenous groups has organized a visit over the past few months, and came away with a desire to expedite the process.

We understand the sense of urgency in bringing the remains back to central Newfoundland, to their homeland, as their current location is only temporary. But we have to do it right. »

A quote from Lisa Dempster, Minister of Aboriginal Affairs of Newfoundland and Labrador

She admits the government made mistakes on the way to bringing back the remains, including rushing through a change that would have done away with the term Red Indian of the lake to replace it with a Mi’kmaw name meaning peaceful lake. This change was greeted with derision by locals, who said they were not consulted.

Newfoundland and Labrador Aboriginal Affairs Minister Lisa Dempster says the center will serve as a burial site for the remains, and could be a public site to honor Beothuk heritage.

Photo: CBC

I took things head on. When we announced the renaming of the lake, we may have gotten a little carried away. You have to know how to live and learnshe continued.

People relate to places and names. I appreciate that. I understand. »

A quote from Lisa Dempster, Minister of Aboriginal Affairs of Newfoundland and Labrador

Although $250,000 has been set aside, the province will ask the federal government to inject more money. The minister declined to provide a cost estimate, saying it is still too early in the process.

Based on text by Ryan Cooke, CBC

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