Beothuk afterlife

Ashley Fitzpatrick
Send to a friend

Send this article to a friend.

Researcher looks at how and why we remember the Beothuk

John Harries, a cultural anthropologist from Scotland, is in Newfoundland studying the Beothuk culture.

Cultural anthropologist John Harries is putting Newfoundlanders under the microscope.

Harries is a research fellow at the Institute of Advanced Sstudies in the Humanities at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland. Since 2006, he has been studying how and why people in present-day Newfoundland and Labrador remember the Beothuk people.

In completing his research, Harries has been back and forth to the province several times. He’ll be back again from Sept. 9-19. He is looking to speak to anyone who feels they have a Beothuk artifact, have at some point felt the presence of the Beothuk, or thinks they have (even simply in family folklore) a Beothuk ancestor.

“Needless to say I am open-minded and am not in the business of judging whether a story or experience is true or false, real or unreal,” Harries stated in correspondence with The Telegram this week.

The Beothuk people are said to have numbered fewer than a thousand people at the time of European contact (16th century). They died out several hundred years following those first meetings.

“I suppose I kind of happened across the idea of studying how people in Newfoundland remember the Beothuk — both in the public culture and arts and also in more private experiences and reminiscences. Like I said, I have been visiting Newfoundland on and off for quite some time and at some point it just sort of struck me that there was still a lot of Beothuk stuff about,” he stated.

“So for the last five years now I have been talking to people who, in one way or another, have an interest in the Beothuk and remembering them.”

What are some of the references the Beothuk that Harries has taken note of to date?

There are plaque dedications, including one for Shawnadithit who died in 1829 in St. John’s, and one for Demasduit, also known as Mary March, in Botwood.

There are locations, including displays on the Beothuk at the at Boyd’s Cove Beothuk Interpretation Centre, The Rooms in St. John’s, the Beothuk Village and Mary March Provincial Museum in Grand Falls-Windsor and a heritage display outside Millertown.

There are novels and books of poetry. Harries points to “River Thieves” by Michael Crummey (2001), “Cloud of Bone” by Bernice Morgan (2007), “All Gone Widdun” by Annemarie Beckel (1999), Peter Such’s “Riverrun” (1973) and a variety of 19th-century works.

There are also films. “(The documentary) ‘Stealing Mary’ (2006) came out around the time of my research and I have talked with some people associated with that film as academics, filmmakers and actors,” Harries said.

I suppose I kind of happened across the idea of studying how people in Newfoundland remember the Beothuk — both in the public culture and arts and also in more private experiences and reminiscences. John Harries

“There is also Ken Pittman’s work, ‘Finding Mary March’ (1988) being the feature film. I have talked to Ken and ... years ago when I first came to Newfoundland I think I went to the premiere of the film.”

Harries also mentions the visual arts, specifically noting work by Jerry Evans and Gerald Squires.

“In some ways, the history and story itself is interesting. But I suppose what really intrigues me is how people, both as individuals and collectively, remember a history which unfolded almost two centuries ago now,” stated the researcher.

“And, more intriguingly, how is it that they bring this history so close to them that they can feel it and sense the presence of long ago people and events?

“This is all the more interesting when these long ago events are difficult and have the capacity to potentially unsettle us. This is, after all, a pretty tough story. The story of an extinction of a people, however that came to pass, and how and why we continue to return to such stories and tell them and feel them and seek, in one way or another, to deal with this past in telling such stories, or making films, writing poetry, making statues, etc. In another sense, it is a question of how the Beothuk are still, to quote Tom Dawe, ‘in there somewhere,’ still present in Newfoundland, even as they are gone.”

Harries said he sees the relationship between the people of present-day Newfoundland and the Beothuk as being potentially able to shed light on populations and peoples elsewhere.

“The big question is how we live with the past, and how this past lives with us,” he said. “And sure maybe the past is not as past as we think it is.”

Harries’ research has been funded, in part, by the British Academy and the International Council for Canadian Studies. His upcoming visit is in part funded by the British Association of Canadian Studies.

Harries said that, during his upcoming visit, he will be spending time in St. John’s and central Newfoundland. He invites those interested in sharing their stories, but who are unable to meet with him, to contact him by phone or e-mail.

His research will be fed into a manuscript in-progress for McGill-Queens University Press in May 2011. The publication date is yet to be determined.

Harries can be reached at:

Organizations: Institute of Advanced Sstudies, University of Edinburgh, Provincial Museum British Academy International Council for Canadian Studies British Association of Canadian Studies McGill-Queens University Press

Geographic location: Newfoundland and Labrador, Scotland, Botwood Beothuk Village Grand Falls-Windsor

  • 1
  • 2
  • 3
  • 4
  • 5

Thanks for voting!

Top of page



Recent comments

  • Andre Laperle
    April 23, 2012 - 15:28

    Lately reaserchers have found Haplogroup C1e in IcelandI! Haplogroup C1 being a native American group, questions arise to understand provenance of this haplogroup in Iceland ! One theory is that the Vikings had left the continant with Natives from Newfoundland 500 years before Europeans arrival! If so could the Beothuks have carried haplogroup C? If I recall group C is presently nonexistent in northern Innuit! So can we presume Haplogroup C either found their way to Greenland and then Iceland, or there were intermingling with Vikings? I have tested with Ftdna and I have three full Mtdna sequence haplogroup C1c matches from the east coast ! Presumably MI'kmaq ? But most Mi'kmaq ancestry are haplogroup A! Where the Beothiks Haplogroup C?

  • Wapi
    December 13, 2011 - 08:48

    Here's a question for the geneticists and researchers studying the ancient DAN of the Beothuk remains: how long does it really take to analyze 20 skeletons? Family Tree DNA offers a 500 000 SNP test for clients at a rate of 199.00 American, with a test result turnover in 6-8 weeks max. McMaster University along with Provincial Medical Genetics has been studying, on record at least, according to censored information released to the general public, the sample collection for at least 5-6 years, if not longer. Are people naive enough to believe that they stopped with the mtDNA and YDNA of Nonosabasutt and Demasduit, which was published in 2005 (completed about 2-3 years beforehand)-I think not, of course they had a peep at the other samples before securing government and private sector funding. But the public does not know about this bureaucratic behind-the-doors consultation and secrecy. Its time for the Beothuk Institute to update its website on current news on the DNA study, open its books to the general public regarding source funding, operating budgets to give accountability and responsibility for its cash flow and spending on these exobrbitant research projects. The fact is that the study has been going on now for what at least 10 years. Isn't it time to put the final test results out int he public domain. Under freedom of information and access to public information as well as peer academic review, we have a right to see this final published research paper. According to an article published int he Evening Telegram in the first week of July 2011, the DNA was extracted in the end of June 2011 (on record). Isn't it time to let it go and get it over with, rather than sitting on the results! If they have nothing to hide, then why not release the results under full and open disclosure? Let it go and move on I say , for God's sake! End the procrastination and behind-the-scenes secrecy.

  • Dr. Lloyd Ryan
    October 30, 2011 - 02:05

    There ARE numerous families with Beothuck ancestry in the Notre Dame Bay area, particularly in, but not exclusively to, the area around Roberts Arm and Long Island. We, from that area, have known that "for ever." But the story is MUCH more interesting than we have believed, thus far.

  • White Hair
    November 13, 2010 - 09:58

    Here's a link on some challenges in using autosomal dna for testing native ancestry beyond five generations.

  • Jeddore
    September 06, 2010 - 17:04

    I am L'nu from here in Taqamkuk and through my uprising I've heard stories about our people's interactions with the Pitawqewaq of this island, which included instances that occurred after the death of the 'last' Pitawqewaq. I would really like to share my stories from our point of view with this man and would like to get in touch with him!

  • wavy
    September 06, 2010 - 10:00

    Well said, Don. Like you, I've often wondered about European and Beothuk "intermingling", shall we say. Admittedly, I don't know as much about the Beothuks as I'd like to, but I don't think the idea is preposterous at all. I think there is a very real possibility of an existing bloodline of Beothuk/ European descent among us. I've even questioned my own family's involvement/ interaction with the Beothuk people. I have traced my family tree far enough to discover my English ancestors first settled in the Exploits Island area of Notre Dame Bay in the 1600's, which was the "neighborhood" of the Beothuk in their heyday, and not far from the Boyd's Cove Beothuk archeological site and interpretation centre (which is really well done, BTW, and interesting for all ages, for those who have not yet visited). Not to be flippant, but I can't see how my ancestors and the Beothuk did NOT interact with one another, either peacefully or otherwise. It's not hard for me to imagine my ancestors participating in either the genocide of the Beothuk or, as Don suggested, conjugation by consent or otherwise. It would be VERY interesting to know if such a bloodline, however diluted, exists. Might explain my love of "roughing-it" style camping, hiking and exploring the woods and outdoors!

  • Don
    September 04, 2010 - 09:46

    Many consider the thought of a Beothuk ancestry amongst the living Newfoundland population to be a preposterous idea. I have heard rumors that a family with Beothuk ancestry exists in Newfoundland. John Guy wrote about his encounter with the Beothuk and described their physical appearance in detail including that their hair was diverse, some black, some brown, some yellow. Some have dismissed this observation of the Beothuk by postulating that the Beothuk dyed their hair with red or yellow ocre. However, the more likely reason for their diverse hair color was as a result of genetic intermingling of the European fishermen and the Beothuk women either by consent or otherwise. Accordingly, there may in fact be Newfoundlanders alive today whose ancestors may have been of the Beothuk race. There are 12 known skeletal remains of Beothuks in storage at The Rooms. It appears there is resistance to having these remains subjected to DNA testing. Why? It may be that this very small genetic sample may prove that there were interracial genetic relations between the Europeans and the Beothuk which produced mixed race offspring some of whom may have ancestors living today. Far fetched you say. Well, let's perform some DNA analysis of Beothuk remains. While only a very small sample of Beothuk remains are available for testing it may successfully show that the Beothuk and the European settlers in Newfoundland were related in some cases. Newfoundland History is mostly myth, folklore, legend and misinterpretation. Let's see some real science prove what our history really was!