People & Culture

Amet*: Understanding the Beothuk

*It means “awake” in Beothuk, the language and people who once called present-day Newfoundland home for about 2,000 years. One young woman, believed to be the last living Beothuk, left a collection of maps and art that help us understand her people’s story.

  • Apr 14, 2021
  • 3,378 words
  • 14 minutes
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With art and maps by Shanawdithit

The pencil drawings are intricate: slender dark lines marching carefully across the pages, glimpses into a people long believed extinguished. Shanawdithit, a Beothuk woman in her 20s, drew them nearly two centuries ago in the months before she died. Only a dozen of her drawings are known to exist today.

Five are maps of the lake in central Newfoundland, today known as Red Indian Lake, where Shanawdithit’s people made camp. But they are not mainly cartographic. Instead, they are accounts of what Shanawdithit saw: where heavily armed British settlers captured Shanawdithit’s aunt, Demasduit, in March 1819; where Demasduit’s husband, Nonosabasut, the last known Beothuk chief, was shot and killed, along with his brother, trying to convince the English to give her back; and, drawn in the red that symbolized both her people’s ochre decorations and their blood, the routes that the Beothuk took as they fled the muskets and bayonets that day.

Another map describes the spot near the lake where Demasduit’s infant died two days after its parents were killed, and the long trek the English made the following January as they carried the pine box containing Demasduit’s muslin-wrapped body back to the lake. There, too, is the site where Demasduit was buried next to her husband and child once the land had thawed that spring. Traced in crimson, like secrets brought to light, are the movements of the Beothuk as they hid from the English, then tracked back across the land and the lake to find the corpse of their kinswoman.

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 This map, drawn by Shanawdithit, shows a portion of Newfoundland’s Exploits River area and is believed to depict the last Beothuk camp.

These are maps as witness statements. They tell not just of murder and kidnap but also of genocide. The Beothuk had lived in what is present-day Newfoundland for about 2,000 years by the time English furriers captured a starving Shanawdithit and her mortally ill sister and mother in 1823. Then, she was one of a handful of her people left. When she died of tuberculosis in St. John’s six years later, she was the last Beothuk of whom the British had any record. Perhaps the last in the world. The annihilation of her people has gone down in the annals of history as a textbook case of the worst of colonialism, a tale of trauma, shame and grief.

Today, almost 200 years later, the stories of Shanawdithit and the Beothuk are being reclaimed and retold on multiple fronts, including by Indigenous communities. In March 2020, after five years of petitioning by Mi’kmaq Chief Mi’sel Joe of the Miawpukek First Nation in Newfoundland, the skulls of Demasduit and Nonosabasut came back to Canada from Scotland. They had been there since 1828.

Modern science is on the case, too. With ancient genomes in hand, geneticists are sleuthing through time to uncover the Beothuks’ forebears and also any modern descendants. Separately, the Mi’kmaq of Miawpukek have launched a DNA probe to see whether the Beothuk bloodline lives on in their community.

And the Algonquin playwright Yvette Nolan brought Shanawdithit back to life in the libretto she wrote for an opera — Shanawdithit — that recently premiered in Toronto, music by the Newfoundland composer Dean Burry. Marion Newman, a Kwagiulth Stó:l? English Irish Scottish mezzo soprano, sang the role.

The story these new investigations tells is not tidy. Nor is it complete. But it is a resurrection of sorts. And much of it stems, in a peculiar way, from the drawings Shanawdithit made all those years ago.

“She managed to talk to us over time,” says Newman. “She was a woman who was an Indigenous person who was being erased on purpose. She persevered in a way that was very unique. There’s so much power in that.”

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This map is a highly accurate depiction of the Exploits River and Red Indian Lake area in Newfoundland. It shows the route the British took to return Demasduit’s body and where her child had died two days after she was abducted (the small red dot with a B).

The colonizers’ version of the Beothuk story has been told for hundreds of years, starting with the explorer John Cabot who reached Newfoundland in 1497. He didn’t clap eyes on the people who inhabited the island, but found fishing nets and other signs of them. Archeologists have unearthed evidence showing that the Beothuk ranged across the island before settlers arrived, moving with the seasons, following their food. They lived on salmon, seals, seabirds and caribou, clothed themselves with the pelts of fur-bearing animals, such as beaver and marten, and decorated themselves and their weapons with ochre.

By the middle of the 18th century, settlers from England and France had taken over much of the island’s hunting, fishing and trapping, including key salmon runs. The Beothuk, wary of contact or trade, withdrew from the food-rich coasts to two more remote spots: today’s Red Indian Lake and a bay and its islands further north, writes Ingeborg Marshall, author of A History and Ethnography of the Beothuk. A count by the English in 1768 put the Beothuk population at about 350, perhaps half of what it had been in better times.

As the 19th century began, after decades of prolonged malnutrition, the spread of European diseases and murderous raids by the English, it was clear the Beothuk were in danger of vanishing. The English hatched plans to seek them out and establish friendly relations. The efforts back-fired spectacularly. One attempt at contact in 1811 ended with the heads of two English soldiers on Beothuk spikes at Red Indian Lake. Another, in 1819, ended with the family deaths that Shanawdithit told us about in her artworks.

In the 1820s, Henry Bathurst, the 3rd Earl Bathurst and Britain’s secretary of state for the colonies, said it was no wonder the Beothuk had rebuffed British overtures: “There was reason to believe that our people had frequently put them to death without sufficient provocation, and in some instances, I am ashamed to say, they were shot at in mere sport.”

Where government and military emissaries faltered, private citizens believed they could succeed. In 1827, William Epps Cormack, a business-person and amateur anthropologist, along with several other colonists, founded the “Boeothick Institution.” Its aim was to open communication with the Beothuk and learn about their society before it was too late, writes Marshall. By that time, Shanawdithit (renamed Nancy April after the month in which she was abducted) had been a servant for four years in the home of John Peyton, Jr., on Exploits Island. Peyton, her master, had been in charge of the excursion to abduct Beothuk that had led to the death of Shanawdithit’s aunt and her family.

A few months after the institution’s founding, Cormack led a gruelling expedition to find Beothuk still living on the land. The men found only the wreckage of a highly developed culture — plus a burial hut. Cormack pillaged the site, seized the skull of Demasduit from her pine coffin and that of Nonosabasut, and promptly sent them to the University of Edinburgh’s museum as anthropological specimens.

Worried that their window to learn about the Beothuk first-hand was closing, the members of the Boeo- thick Institution opted to remove Shanawdithit from her job as a servant and transport her to St. John’s to live with Cormack. Cormack’s task was to teach her English and to find out what he could about her people’s customs, language and interactions with Europeans. He gave her paper and pencils. That’s when she began to draw the maps and other images that, today, bring small parts of her experience to life.

Cormack’s relationship with Shanawdithit remains murky and filled with contradictions. Apparently determined to chronicle Beothuk culture for posterity, he never published his findings. He wrote ink notes on some of her surviving pencilled art-works, explaining her testimony, but added other, less respectful, commentary. For example, on the back of a drawing showing the differences between spears for killing seals and those for deer, alongside intriguing depictions of a “short and very thick” devil and a dancing woman, Cormack has written “Nancy is a bad girl.” A few months before she died, while she was very ill with tuberculosis, he returned to Britain, transferring her to the care of Newfoundland’s attorney general, and never saw her again. For her part, Shanawdithit gave Cormack tokens: a braid of her hair as well as a rounded piece of granite and a piece of quartz. They are now lost.

After she died, her skull, too, was sent to Britain, says Marshall. It ended up at the Royal College of Surgeons in London and was blown to pieces by a bomb during the Second World War. The rest of her body was buried in St. John’s in a graveyard that was destroyed in 1903 for the construction of a railway.

Encoded within our DNA, twisted in long double-helix-shaped strands of molecules, is a story about the personal characteristics of each of us. But those strands also contain a treasure trove of information about where each of us fits into the human family and, more broadly, into the evolution of all life on Earth.

Scientists mapped the human genome, the recipe for what makes our species distinct from any other, for the first time in 2003 after a fevered international race. One of the key questions they ask of the results is how and when our species came to spread to different parts of the planet after leaving Africa about 180,000 years ago.

“I’m fascinated by humans,” says Ana Duggan, a molecular anthropologist at McMaster University in Hamilton who studies ancient DNA. “I’m interested in how we are all related to each other despite what may appear as differences.”

The Beothuk are an important piece of that puzzle because they reached the furthest edge of the last continent to be settled. That means, based on this theory, their ancestors travelled from Africa through Asia to the northeastern coast of Siberia, then finally across what is now the Bering Sea to the far northwestern tip of North America before travelling to this continent’s easternmost edge. It is thought to have been among the last original human migrations.

But the Beothuk were not the first to reach Newfoundland. Archeological records show that about 8,000 years ago, thousands of years before the Beothuk arrived, another Indigenous People, the Maritime Archaic, lived on the island. They seemed to have aban- doned it for the mainland about 3,500 years ago, apparently leaving the island unpopulated for more than a thousand years. One of the questions for geneticists was whether the Beothuk are descendants of Maritime Archaic or are perhaps the same people.

How to find out? The first step was rooted in the tragedies Shanawdithit drew and in Cormack’s act of desecrating her relatives’ resting place. Until 2020, the skulls of Demasduit and Nonosabasut were in the National Museum of Scotland. A team of Canadian and Danish researchers took a tooth from each skull for genetic and chemical analysis, publishing the information in 2007.

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Shanawdithit made both maps, including simple ones such as this one (top) showing where one of her people was murdered, and sketches, such as this one (bottom) of the house she lived in in St. John’s.

The process of using ancient DNA is fraught with ethical issues that modern analysts are assessing ever more deeply, says geneticist Steve Carr of Memorial University of Newfoundland in St. John’s, who was not part of the 2007 study. He has Indigenous Ute ancestors on his father’s side.

“It’s very important in this kind of work to recognize that we are dealing with ancient Indigenous human beings, who are unable to grant permission in their own names,” he says. “Out of respect, we seek permission from their modern descendants or current custodians of the ancient lands.”

Once Beothuk sequences were on record, other researchers, including Duggan, expanded the analysis to the remains of 17 other Beothuk. Then they compared the findings to the mitochondrial (mother-side) DNA of the ancient remains of 53 Maritime Archaic.

Their paper, published in 2017, revealed that Beothuk were not direct matrilineal descendants of Maritime Archaic and that their common ancestor was much older, perhaps among the first small group of humans to reach North America during the last ice age about 20,000 years ago.

Separately, researchers in Iceland uncovered another possible piece of the Beothuk story. Icelanders are a pretty predictable bunch, genetically speaking; they are mainly British and Scandinavian. But in 2011, the geneticist Sigrí?ur Sunna Ebenesersdóttir found an anomaly. A few Icelanders carry a piece of mitochondrial DNA, called the C1e lineage, that links back to some of the original inhabitants of the Americas. No modern North Americans are known to have that same lineage today.

When Ebenesersdóttir parsed the findings further and tracked them back through time, she realized that the DNA likely came from at least one North American Indigenous woman who had children in Iceland in about 1000 CE. Archeological evidence at L’Anse aux Meadows, a national historic site on the northwest tip of Newfoundland, shows that Vikings lived on the northern coast of the province in that era. Norse sagas tell of the Viking chieftain and explorer Leif Erikson’s voyages to North America at that time. The Beothuk were in Newfoundland then, too.

Is this another European abduction of a Beothuk woman? Does Beothuk DNA live on in modern Icelanders? The answers at this point are unclear. But the questions intrigued Carr. He wondered whether Beothuk DNA might show up anywhere else.

So, he fed the Beothuk information, along with that of the Maritime Archaic, into GenBank, a massive collection of genetic sequences from all over the world maintained by the National Institutes of Health in the U.S. Every time a scientific paper publishes a genome, it’s catalogued and put into the GenBank database where it can be searched. Then Carr used the equivalent of a web browser to look for people related to the Beothuk and the Maritime Archaic mitochondrial DNA.

“It’s a very large haystack and it’s a very small needle,” says Carr.

His results, published in 2020, were stunning. First, a modern person who is of Ojibwa ancestry is genetically identical to the motherline of Nonosabasut. A second person, with whom Carr has spoken and who was unaware of any Indig- enous ancestry, has DNA nearly identical to Demasduit, on the mother’s side. Since Demasduit’s child died, this person cannot be her direct descendant, but is a cousin, likely the descendant of Demasduit’s mother or grandmother or a female relative dating even further back. Third, a modern Ojibwa person from the Great Lakes area is genetically identical, on the mother’s side, to a Maritime Archaic.

“The Beothuk and Maritime Archaic genetic lineages persist in the present day,” says Carr.

To Chief Joe, whose people have been at Conne River on Newfoundland’s south coast since 1822, those findings leave much unknown in the complex Beothuk tale. He was outraged that the skulls of Demasduit and Nonosabasut were at a museum in Scotland and began plotting their return. He made several trips to Scotland to view the remains and ask for them back. More recently, federal, provincial and First Nation governments petitioned for their repatriation. Private donations flowed in to support the effort. The skulls finally arrived back at The Rooms, a museum in St. John’s, in March 2020, 192 years after they left Canada.

“Canadians should know,” says Chief Joe. “It’s not an aboriginal issue. It’s an issue for all Canadians. It’s all our responsibility to make sure any remains come home. It’s a moral issue, a spiritual issue, an emotional issue.”

Chief Joe is determined to decode more of the Beothuk story. Along with continuing to search for stolen Beothuk remains, he is keen to have researchers look at DNA. His community’s oral tradition says that Mi’kmaq and Beothuk intermarried. Recently his nation received a National Geographic Explorer grant to test DNA within the community. He has asked Carr to be the scientific advisor on the project through a private genetics consultancy Carr operates. So far, about 100 Mi’kmaq have agreed to be tested through a set of ethics protocols the nation established. Another 50 to 100 will be as well. About 800 people live on the nation. The results have not yet been released.

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“We’re not specifically looking for Beothuk traces. It’s more about the health of the community. It’s just a matter of doing this and seeing what comes back,” says Chief Joe. “We are Mi’kmaq people, that’s not going to change. We’re not looking to form a new Beothuk band.”

Duggan, who grew up in Newfound­land hearing about the fate of Shanawdithit and the Beothuk, agrees that no matter what the DNA sequences reveal, Beothuk are no longer here in the way they once were.

“The undeniable reality is that we cannot define a population by gene­tics,” she says. “Beothuk language is gone. Beothuk culture is gone. Gene­tics don’t make a people.”

When playwright Yvette Nolan first imagined writing a libretto for the opera Shanawdithit, she knew right away that the ancient pencil drawings would be the heart of the piece, both emotionally and visually It was fiercely important to Nolan to use Shanawdithit’s own artwork, without Cormack’s inky explanations, to give her back a voice.

“We keep her alive by putting her into the art, by saying that the work she did, those pieces she left, was art,” says Nolan. “And then artists responded to those pieces and made art and so we’re all saying her name again.”

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This drawing includes Ash-mud-yim or the “Red Indian Devil,” two hunting spears, a drying house, a woman dancing and several birchbark vessels.

Newman, the mezzo­soprano, also relied on Shanawdithit’s drawings as she figured out how to portray her. She had copies of the drawings both on set and in her dressing room, as well as blank paper so she could trace out Shanawdithit’s pencil strokes over and over again.

Newman marvelled at how often Shanawdithit must have walked around the lake to have drawn it in such exqui­site detail years later. Shanawdithit incorporated multiple timelines into a single map, as if it were a movie rather than a snapshot, a glimpse into a non­ linear Indigenous worldview.

More than anything, though, New­man noticed that, through her art, Shanawdithit had told and retold the story of her aunt, Demasduit.

“She really wanted that story to be told. She didn’t want her to be forgotten. And she did it,” says Newman. “We’re still talking about it and now an opera has been made. It was just an incredible thing to reach into the future that way.”

Nolan, Newman and the rest of the opera team took time every day during rehearsals to feast in honour of Shanawdithit, smudging over the food, sitting in a circle. The spectre of death hung over them. It was personal.

“My fascination with her is the his­tory of all Indigenous Peoples on this land and whether we are disappeared or not,” says Nolan, adding that she grap­pled with her right to tell the story. “If no one’s telling the story, is it erasure? If there’s no Beothuk person to tell the story, is that as good as being extermi­nated? Are we being disappeared?”

Newman, whose Indigenous roots are in British Columbia, wondered how her people had escaped the same fate as the Beothuk. “I kept thinking, this could be my end of Canada. What if colonization had started at the other end? This could be me.”

Both Newman and Nolan believe it is important for all Canadians to hear the story of the Beothuk, as unfinished and heart­rending as it is. And to own it.

“It’s where reconciliation starts, talk­ing about things that are a bit more difficult,” says Newman, “and that you don’t really have the knowledge of on your own.”

Like ghosts that echo through our consciousness, the Beothuk guide us all to a deeper understanding of our past, our present and our future


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