'Their spirits can be at peace': Mi'kmaq chief reflects on long journey to repatriate Beothuk remains

·4 min read
Mi'sel Joe is the saqamaw, or chief, of the Miawpukek First Nation. (Garrett Barry/CBC - image credit)
Mi'sel Joe is the saqamaw, or chief, of the Miawpukek First Nation. (Garrett Barry/CBC - image credit)

Standing in a cold, sterile room, Mi'sel Joe took a long look at two skulls on a table in front of him. He felt a pull from somewhere inside him, drawing his hands up from his sides.

Ignoring the rules set out by museum staff, he ran his hands gently over the bones of Demasduit and Nonosabasut — two of the last known Beothuk.

"If you've ever hit your funny bone in your elbow, that's what it felt like going up my arm," he said. "It was a sense of pain, and anger, and anguish … straight to my heart."

Joe, the Miawpukek First Nation chief, has been on a mission to have the remains of Demasduit and Nonosabasut returned to a final resting place for decades. The provincial government told CBC News this week that plans are underway to bring the remains back to Beothuk Lake, the scene of a bloody stain on Newfoundland's history in 1819.

Nonosabasut was killed by European settlers, and Demasduit was kidnapped. Their newborn baby died in the following days. After several attempts to bring Demasduit back to Beothuk Lake in the summer, she died of tuberculosis in January 1820 and was brought back to her people in a coffin to be buried next to her husband.

A few years later, Scottish explorer William Cormack found their gravesite and took their skulls. They were housed in the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh for 200 years.

Library and Archives Canada
Library and Archives Canada

Joe was instrumental in having them sent back to Newfoundland and has been working with the provincial government to get them out of The Rooms and into a final resting place since 2020.

"The spirit of those people have been in limbo for 200 years … with no place to call home," he said. "Once they're back in Newfoundland and put back to where they were taken from, in a respectful manner, their spirits will be at peace."

The province says extensive consultation will take place before a final resting place is decided upon. It's believed the original gravesite sat across the lake from what is now the Indian Point National Historic Site.

Whatever site is chosen, the province said it will build a cultural centre around the remains and keep them secure.

Protection of existing sites crucial, local mayor says

The decisions of what to build — and where — will come down to extensive conversations with Indigenous groups and municipal leaders, said Indigenous Affairs Minister Lisa Dempster.

That includes Millertown Mayor Fiona Humber, who said all 80 residents of her town would be on board with a new cultural centre somewhere in their region.

"We'd love to see the remains repatriated somewhere back to Beothuk Lake," she said, noting the original gravesite may or may not still exist. "Anywhere in this vicinity would be appropriate, in our opinion."

Garrett Barry/CBC
Garrett Barry/CBC

Humber is happy with the idea for a new cultural centre, and hopes it comes with added support from the provincial and federal governments for Beothuk sites that already exist.

A volunteer group has been lobbying the provincial government for improved access to Indian Point for several years. It's accessible only by truck now, Humber said, and the road gets worse with each passing season. On top of that, many of the replica Beothuk dwellings at Indian Point are in need of repair, with little federal or provincial help to do so.

"We're hoping that this would be a good start for getting more recognition in the area, because there's so much here and it's relatively unknown," she said.

Other unmarked sites along the shoreline are at risk of washing away, Humber said, especially when Newfoundland and Labrador Hydro — which controls the Exploits Dam at the mouth of the lake — keeps water levels high. Humber hopes the return of Demasduit and Nonosabasut will spark a renewed interest in protecting the entire lake.

Chief not stopping here

While Mi'sel Joe can relish this victory, he has no plans of letting up. There are more artifacts and remains in museums around the world he would like to see back in the province.

Joe said some Mi'kmaq artifacts from his own family are on display at the Smithsonian in Washington, and he's filled out applications to have them returned. Other Newfoundland and Labrador items are still in Edinburgh, and there are more in Vienna.

If they were taken forcibly, or coerced from people, Joe said, they should be returned.

"I think it's good for our communities to see part of their history that were taken," he said. "It's important to have them back. It creates a historical link for our younger people to that time when those things were made and used."

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