Does bloodline a Beothuk make?

·5 min read

When the Mi’kmaq of Conne River applied for federal Indigenous status in the 1970s, Brian Peckford did the unthinkable.

The then-Newfoundland and Labrador premier hired a researcher to counter their claim, and released a brief in 1982 that argued the group had no more right to the land than his own English ancestors.

“The reaction of all concerned was that of surprise and utter confuslon,” The Telegram reported at the time. “The Peckford government is the first of any of the provincial governments to act in such a manner. Newfoundland has to be the first and only province to intervene on native land claims, while the federal government is still reviewing the claims documentation.”

Nonetheless, there was a prevailing view among many residents in those days that the Beothuk — believed to have died out in the early 1800s — were the only legitimately native tribe to have lived on the island.

Not only was it believed the Mi’kmaq were brought to the island by the French, but that the French put a bounty on Beothuk heads, and their Mi’kmaw allies took them up on it.

In fact, it’s widely accepted the Mi’kmaq had travelled to the southern shores of Newfoundland from Cape Breton to hunt and fish long before their presence was documented by European settlers.

And there’s no evidence for the bounty story.

Until a new crop of researchers such as Ingeborg Marshall and the late Ralph Pastore came along, the prevailing belief in Canada was that white settlers had literally slaughtered the Beothuk into extinction. That was the premise of Harold Horwood’s 1959 Maclean’s magazine piece, “The People Who Were Murdered for Fun.”

While there are accounts of settlers seeking out and killing Beothuks, and of some retaliation in kind, it’s now generally accepted that the history is far more complex.

Simplistic narratives have given way to a more nuanced understanding.

But the finger-pointing has left deep scars for many, especially today’s Mi’kmaw people.

All early eyewitness accounts of the Beothuk come from Europeans — and more specifically, from literate ones, often those born into privilege. Many fishermen and woodsmen at the time could not read or write.

It is only natural to assume those accounts are coloured by their own culture and their own value systems. Marshall, author of “A History and Ethnography of the Beothuk, has arguably gone further than any previous anthropologist in researching the history of the Beothuk. She tracked down archival records, including a previously unknown journal by John Guy, and has drawn extensively upon archeological findings.

But she says she knows why her views have met with some hostility in recent years by those who are trying to reshape the Beothuk narrative.

“Because it’s considered colonial. It’s a very easy explanation,” she says.

And it doesn’t fit with a growing belief that Beothuk descendants live on in the present day, a premise that denies the tribe ever really died out.

‘False promise’

Ryerson professor Christopher Aylward tracked several people in Newfoundland and Nova Scotia who claim to be descended from Beothuks for his documentary “The Beothuk Story.”

He said he wanted to give fresh voices to these people rather than rehash the same sources, such as the journals of cross-island adventurer William Cormack.

“It really is time to open up a little bit and to hear what other people, including the descendants of the Beothuk themselves, have to say and take it from there.”

For better or worse, his work comes as the rise of commercial DNA testing has caused an explosion of interest in Indigenous ancestry.

Companies like AncestryDNA and 23andMe claim to be able to tease out the geographic and racial strands that make up every individual, with varying degrees of accuracy.

But distinguishing Indigenous genes can be fraught with pitfalls, the main one being that it oversimplifies what constitutes native identity.

Kim Tallbear, a professor of native studies at the University of Alberta, sensed this almost 10 years ago when she wrote a book called “Native American DNA: Tribal Belonging and the False Promise of Genetic Science.”

“Your average DNA test-taker out in the public, who doesn’t really understand the science, is far more willing to incorporate a genetic ancestry test into their evolving sense of personal identity,” Tallbear said in a recent phone interview.

DNA alone cannot define one’s identity, she said.

“I think what people are scrambling for is this ancient noble savage or noble Indian in their bloodline. They’re not very interested in contemporary Indigenous people who are alive, who are living in a still very colonial society at a severe income and class disadvantage, people living with multiple generations of trauma from residential schools, from other forms of discrimination and systematic exclusion,” said Tallbear, who was raised on a Sioux reservation in South Dakota and later moved to St. Paul.

“That’s not what people want. They want that ancient noble savage that they see in paintings.”

For some, the idea of a revived Beothuk tribe has become almost an obsession.

Carol SongofLove Boyce clamed in 2017 that DNA proved she is Beothuk. Genetics experts refuted her claim, but she still calls herself the grand chief of a resurrected Beothuk Nation.

Ronald Ryan, one of the self-identified Beothuks that Aylward interviewed, is president of another group called Beothuk Nation that is advocating for federal recognition.

In 2020, Ryan posited the Beothuk were actually descendants of ancient Chinese sailors and Norse brides from Greenland.

Wherever the truth lies, Aylward says it’s important to incorporate all points of view.

“A collective sense of identity is not that different from an individual sense of identity, in that it arises from one’s lived experience. And once that identity is in place, it is extremely resistant — in some cases impervious — to an alternate interpretation.”

Peter Jackson, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Telegram

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