Beothuk afterlife

Researcher looks at how and why we remember the Beothuk

Ashley Fitzpatrick
Published on September 4, 2010
John Harries, a cultural anthropologist from Scotland, is in Newfoundland studying the Beothuk culture.
— Submitted photo

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.

“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: