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Miawpukek chief continues effort to repatriate Beothuk remains from Scottish museum

Miawpukek First Nation Chief Mi’sel Joe
Miawpukek First Nation Chief Mi’sel Joe

The skulls of two Beothuk people remain behind the scenes in a Scottish museum as repatriation efforts appear to have stalled.

Miawpukek First Nation Chief Mi’sel Joe has been working on bringing the remains home to Newfoundland — or at least Canada — for a while. He said it’s a long process, and one he intends to follow through.

A forensic facial reconstruction of Nonosbawsut by Richard Neave.

The skulls are said to have belonged to Demasduit and Nonosbawsut, two of the last known Beothuk people. In 1819, Demasduit was captured by John Peyton’s group, and her husband Nonosbawsut was killed trying to protect her.
Joe allows that he’s not an expert and can’t confirm who the skulls belonged to. But he said as he understands it, the remains are Beothuk and were taken from a gravesite near Cormack.
Since learning of them, Joe has travelled to the museum in Edinburgh, Scotland, a few times, and has been corresponding with National Museums Scotland about repatriation.

This portrait of Demasduit shows the Beothuk woman in 1819, the year she was captured by John Peyton and his group.

“I did see the two skulls. Apparently they were on display at one time, because there’s still a hook drilled into one of them where they were hanging from someplace somewhere,” he said.
After visiting the museum, Joe is confident the remains are being well cared for. He said staff were quite protective of the skulls when he was there.
“There were at least five people in the room first when we got there. They asked me a whole bunch of questions. Then I said, ‘Can I have some alone time with the remains?’ They said no at first. I said, ‘Listen, I’m not going to grab them and run away with them. I just want to say a private prayer.’ They agreed that one of the people, the curator, would stay in the room and the other ones would have to leave.’”
When Joe had a little more privacy, he did a sweetgrass smudge over the skulls.

Working on it

On paper, the effort has plenty of support from both the federal and provincial governments. The provincial Liberal government even wrote in its five-point plan, “A Stronger Tomorrow,” that it planned to work with the Canadian and U.K. governments to repatriate the remains — “to ensure there is no further injustice to the memory of Demasduit and Nonosbawsut.”
But since the CBC reported last summer that the formal request was being put together, things seem to have stalled. A spokesperson for National Museums Scotland confirmed for The Telegram that a letter of intent had been sent from the federal government, but no formal request has been received.
The Telegram inquired with both the federal and provincial governments about the status of the effort. A provincial spokesperson said National Museums Scotland requires that repatriation requests are made by a national government, supported by a national museum and supported by “a community descended from the original owners.”

“In light of these criteria, the Provincial Government is working with the Federal Government to pursue repatriation,” the spokesperson said, adding Canadian Heritage officials had been in touch with the Canadian Museum of History about it.

The Telegram also contacted Heritage Minister Mélanie Jolie’s department, and got this reply: “The Department of Canadian Heritage is continuing to work with the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador to develop all of the components that are required by National Museums Scotland for requests of this kind.”

Joe said Scott Simms, MP for Coast of Bays-Central-Notre Dame, promised him a while back that he would introduce a private member’s bill on the issue, but “I haven’t seen any tangible evidence of that at this stage.”

He said lots of people are talking about it, and maybe there’s work being done behind the scenes, but he hasn’t seen anything yet.


It’s a Newfoundland issue’

In the meantime, Joe continues to do what he can. He’s working on a letter to send to both levels of government about the issue, and he plans to head back to Scotland this spring to see if there’s anything else he can do to help move the process along. While there, he plans to visit an Inuit lawyer whose community has gone through a repatriation process.

“I’ve already met people at the museum a couple of times. I’m not going to get any more from them. What’s going to take place now is the federal government and the province is going to need to get involved and do what they’ve got to do.

“And I just want to go down and keep touching base with them, let them know I’m not dead and I’m still looking at making this happen.”

Joe said it might be old-fashioned, but he prefers to speak with people in person about such matters.

“When I sit down and talk to people, I like to see the reaction in their face. That’s the only way I know how to work. You need to see the body language,” he said.

It costs money to travel for this type of lobbying, and he has spent a fair bit of his own so far. A few companies pitched in to pay for the most recent trip, and the band is now overseeing an account to help with such matters.

Joe said if people would like to get involved, they can contact their MPs about the issue. No petition has been set up, but he said that’s something he’d like to see, too.

He said it’s important to him that the remains that were taken come home, and it should be important to others, too.

“It was a dark time in our history in Newfoundland, and to me it’s not an aboriginal issue as much as it’s a Newfoundland issue that we all need to get involved in, because it’s part of our history,” he said. “When you look at the history of the Beothuk people and how their demise came about, I think we owe it to them and their remains. And their spirit will never be free  — we need to do something about that.”
Twitter: @TelyLouis

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