Anthropologist Ingeborg Marshall is considered the foremost authority on the Beothuk.Peter Jackson, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Original Published on Aug 01, 2022 at 05:04

By Peter Jackson, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

First in a two-part series

One hundred years ago, American anthropologist Frank Speck wrote about his encounter with a Mi’kmaq family who had set up camp near Gloucester, Mass.

Joe Toney, there with his wife, child and mother, told Speck they were originally from Newfoundland. Then he said his late father, Kop, had been a member of the Osa’yan’a tribe at Red Pond. Speck realized it was the Mi’kmaq term for Beothuk, and that Red Pond was Red Indian Lake (since renamed Beothuk Lake).

The American spoke to Joe’s mother, Santu, at length while Joe translated. She said her husband remembered being stained with red ochre as a child, but that the Mi’kmaw had taken him while he was young and converted him to Christianity. She even sang a song, though it’s authenticity is uncertain.

When Speck brought the story to geologist James P. Howley — who, at the time, was the foremost authority on the Beothuk — the latter expressed doubts.

“Notwithstanding the fact that Mr. Howley’s opinions, based on his extensive knowledge of Newfoundland history and physiography, deserve serious consideration,” Soeck wrote in his 1922 book “Beothuk and Micmac,” “I hardly think, under the circumstances, that the conclusions of one trained in sciences other than ethnology are sufficient to warrant absolutely casting aside information which may be of value, and which on the face of it does bear some semblance of truthfulness.”

Speck was likely the first scholar to document the possibility of Beothuk blood still coursing through the veins of living descendants.

Almost 100 years later, Ryerson film professor Chris Aylward raised the bar again with his hour-long documentary “The Beothuk Story,” which included interviews with Ivy Toney and Ardy Landry, Santu’s granddaughter and great-granddaughter living in Nova Scotia.

Landry has since died.

War of words

When Aylward’s documentary first aired on NTV in 2021, it created a stir and evoked some criticism.

Ingeborg Marshall, whose 1996 tome “A History and Ethnography of the Beothuk” has been generally accepted as the most authoritative exploration of the tribe, publicly took issue with its premise that Beothuk people still live among us.

“Despite the extensive claims of possible survival of Beothuk genetic material into modern times, the lesson which the documentary failed to present is the fact that the Beothuk culture is extinct and therefore the Beothuk, as an independent ‘ethnic group,’ are considered to have died out,” she wrote in a letter to The Telegram.

Aylward replied to Marshall’s letter in kind.

“I was both saddened and perplexed by Marshall’s letter: saddened for the misunderstanding and hurt its opinion has caused among the island’s Beothuk and Mi’kmaq peoples,” he wrote, “and perplexed that such an outdated and misinformed opinion continues to find a voice.”

Reached by phone recently on the north coast of Newfoundland, Aylward was less dismissive of Marshall’s take.

“If you’re trying to get at the truth of history, if such a thing even exists, it makes more sense … to take into account all of the pieces and try to find as many as you can and pay attention to them,” he said.

“I believe you fall into a trap when you believe any one source.”

But he persists in referring to the people he talked to as “Beothuk,” and says the written record of Europeans such as William Cormack and the Peyton family are given too much weight.

“Some academics are very threatened by another voice and are very much in opposition to it. And I would definitely put Ingeborg among those people,” he said.

Lost culture

At 93, Ingeborg Marshall now lives in a seniors apartment in St. John’s, but the veteran anthropologist is still very much active with Beothuk research.

During an interview, she frequently gets up to consult letters and excerpts from books, some of which challenge her arguments and others that back them.

She says there’s nothing in her research that has been disproven as such, and stands by the central narrative that the last known Beothuk, Shanawdithit, died in St. John’s in 1829 and that her tribe, as a distinct cultural entity, has vanished.

The disagreement appears to be one of semantics. Scientists have discovered traces of many lost cultures and races in living people, Marshall says, including strands of Neanderthal DNA.

There is some discussion of genetics in Aylward’s film, including an interview with Memorial University biologist Steve Carr, who has been hired by Miawpukek First Nations in Conne River to compare known DNA from Beothuk remains with its Mi’kmaw members.

Miawpukek’s Chief Mi’sel Joe says Carr has already found Beothuk markers in two living residents, but adds the study is in only a preliminary stage.

None of that matters anyway, says Marshall. She agrees it’s plausible the Beothuk may have intermarried with other tribes and with Europeans, but the lineage decreases over time.

“Every time they remarry, it’s only half,” she says. “After five or six or seven generations, you (approach) one per cent.”

For Joe, the question is not so much whether Beothuk people are still alive today, it’s more about re-examining the relationship between the Mi’kmaq and the Beothuk through the lens of oral history as well as documented encounters.

One of the primary sources suggesting a hostile relationship between the two tribes comes from Shanawdithit herself, as recorded by her captors.

Joe says there would have been periods of both hostility and peace between the two groups.

“If you look at the world today, the fighting that goes on in what you call the holy wars, and back then you got to keep in mind, over 200 years ago, if you found someone on your hunting ground, of course there was going to be a fight,” he said. “It went both ways.”

But he insists the Mi’kmaq’s role in the Beothuk demise has been overstated.

“Our people knew and lived with Beothuk people, and there was intermarriage between the two,” he says.

Part Two – Original Published on Aug 02, 2022 at 09:27

This portrait, presumed to be that of the last known Beothuk, Shawnadithit, has remained the most ubiquitous face of the lost tribe.Archival photo

Does bloodline a Beothuk make?

By Peter Jackson, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

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.

Established narrative

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.”

‘Grand chief’

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.”

This item reprinted with permission from The Telegram, St. John’s, Newfoundland