The chief of the Miawpukek First Nation band paid an emotional visit to the National Museum of Scotland recently to talk to museum officials about repatriating the remains of two Beothuk people killed in the 1820s.
The remains of Demasduit and her husband — a chief named Nonosabusut — have been stored at the Edinburgh museum for years. The pair are the aunt and uncle of Shanawdithit, the last known member of the extinct Beothuk people, who died in St. John's in 1829.
Mi'sel Joe, chief of the reserve at Conne River in southern Newfoundland not far from a former Beothuk excavation site, says the remains were taken from a burial site and shipped to Britain to study, and later ended up at the museum in Edinburgh.
"I think they were on display at one time, but at this stage I believe they're no longer doing that," he said.
In an interview with the Central Morning Show, Joe said it's important that someone advocates for the Beothuk people, and begins a process of returning the remains to the province.
"They were stolen, they were taken, they were grave robbing if you want to call it that, and it's long overdue that they come back to where they belong."
Sweet grass ceremony
While in Scotland, Joe was permitted to view the remains and perform a sweet grass ceremony, a purification ritual meant to wash away negative thoughts and feelings.
"I don't know if any ceremony has ever been performed over [those remains], I think they were just taken from a grave site and taken out for study," he said.
Joe said the ceremony took an emotional turn.
"I actually shed some tears. It was like visiting the remains of my own people — well, they are my own people — just like visiting remains of people who have passed on into the spirit world," said Joe.
"Maybe what I need to do is go and dig up [Robert] Burns, maybe that'll open somebody's eyes ... " - M'isel Joe, Chief of the Miawpukek First Nation band
The next step, he said, is for the federal government to ask Scotland to return the remains.
Joe said returning them to the original burial site is unlikely, given their popularity. He's been told that, if repatriated, the remains will likely be stored in a national museum.
"I don't think it's going to happen overnight. We're now starting to put together some information for the federal government. I do have support from the Assembly of First Nations and from the all-chiefs assembly in Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, P.E.I. and Quebec. I have a support letter from the Innu, I have support letters from the caribou band on the west coast."
After visiting the remains, Joe said he's more determined than ever to bring them home.
"Maybe what I need to do is go and dig up [Robert] Burns, maybe that'll open somebody's eyes ... I mean, what's the difference in me going to dig up [Robby] Burns and bringing him back to study in Newfoundland than them taking the remains of our people to study for all these years?"
"Surely they must have done enough study at this stage."