Nfld. & Labrador

Stolen skulls returning to Beothuk Lake, as N.L. plans for new cultural centre

The skulls of Demasduit and Nonosabasut, stolen from their gravesite more than 200 years ago, will be returned to Beothuk Lake.

Decision has unanimous consent of province's 5 Indigenous groups, minister says

Beothuk Lake, in Newfoundland's interior, is mostly remote, with only the small towns of Millertown, Buchans and Buchans Junction nearby. (Submitted by Dave Wilcox)

The remains of two Beothuk people will be returned to a final resting place near the graves they were robbed from more than 200 years ago.

CBC News has learned the government of Newfoundland and Labrador has earmarked $250,000 for a new "cultural centre" at Beothuk Lake, near the central Newfoundland communities of Buchans and Millertown.

The centre will serve as a gravesite for the remains and could be a public site to honour the legacy of the Beothuk, according to provincial Indigenous Affairs Minister Lisa Dempster.

"They will be placed in a very secure manner. They will not be put on display. However, there's so many things we could do around that that are still in the preliminary stages," Dempster said. 

"There are a number of things we can do to tell the story of those people, and that's what we really want to do here."

Stolen territory, stolen remains

The story is a tragic one. The Beothuk were the Indigenous people of what would become Newfoundland. They suffered in the years after European colonization, forced out of their traditional territory into smaller and smaller spaces as settlers spread through the island. Many died of foreign diseases and from violent clashes. 

By the 1800s, with their population dwindling, the Beothuk were mostly hemmed in on the interior of the island around Beothuk Lake — formerly known as Red Indian Lake. That's where a search party led by notorious settler John Peyton Sr. found a group of Beothuk in March 1819. The white men were authorized only to retrieve stolen fishing gear, but things quickly turned violent.

Demasduit was among the last of the Beothuk people. She was taken by European settlers in 1819, and died soon after. Her remains were stolen and sent to a museum in Scotland, where they stayed until 2020. (Library and Archives Canada)

While most of the inhabitants scattered after sighting the settlers, a woman named Demasduit was unable to escape in the deep snow. She stepped forward with her newborn infant to plead for mercy. Instead, Peyton's men captured her. Her husband, Nonosabasut, tried to negotiate with the settlers, but he was shot dead. Their baby died in the days following Demasduit's capture.

Demasduit spent the spring in St. John's, but a decision was made that summer to bring her back to her people at Beothuk Lake. After a few failed attempts, Demasduit caught tuberculosis on a trip to the interior in January 1820 and died in what is now Botwood.

The injustice did not end there. A few years later, Scottish explorer William Cormack — who was born in St. John's — visited the gravesite and took the skulls of Demasduit and Nonosabasut, sending them to the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh, where they sat for 200 years.

The skulls were returned in 2020, after a long fight spearheaded by Miawpukek Mi'kmaq Chief Mi'sel Joe. They've been stored at The Rooms, a provincial museum and archive in St. John's, ever since.

"That's not a place that anyone would want the remains of their loved ones," Dempster said.

Internal documents shed some light on plans

While there's been some public debate about what a final resting place should be, Dempster said the decision to return them to the lake has unanimous consent from the province's five Indigenous groups.

"What is now Beothuk Lake, that area is what made sense. That is their home. That is where they came from," she said.

CBC News has asked all five Indigenous groups for their reaction on Wednesday. This story will be updated as responses roll in.

A specific location has not been finalized, but Dempster said it will be a new facility, and not an upgrade to the existing national historic site at Indian Point, along the lakeshore in the sparse community of Millertown.

The Boyd's Cove Beothuk Interpretation Centre is near Twillingate, in the northeast corner of Newfoundland. Its main building is designed after Beothuk mamateeks. (Town of Twillingate)

Dempster said details are still in the works, but a briefing note obtained through access-to-information requests mentions a few suggestions.

Much of it is redacted, but the note says the facility would need to be climate-controlled and secured, and while the facility would house the remains, they would not be on display for the general public, as that would be "antithetical to reconciliation."

It says one possible format could be something similar to the Beothuk interpretation centre in Boyd's Cove, which was modelled after a Beothuk mamateek, or wigwam.

Looking to avoid past mistakes

Many details remain to be worked out, and Dempster said her government will work with the Indigenous groups and the towns around Beothuk Lake before finalizing plans.

In the meantime, the government and five Indigenous groups have an agreement to keep them at The Rooms. They also have another deal: whenever someone from one group wants to view the remains, they must get consent from all the others. 

Dempster said one of the Indigenous groups arranged a viewing in recent months, and came away from it with a desire to speed up the process.

"We appreciate the sense of urgency in wanting the remains back in central Newfoundland, in their homeland, because where they are now is just temporary. But we have to get it right," Dempster said.

Lisa Dempster, Newfoundland and Labrador's minister of Indigenous affairs, says the centre will serve as a gravesite for the remains and could be a public site to honour the legacy of the Beothuk. (CBC)

She admits the government has made mistakes along the road to returning the remains, mainly in rushing through a change that would strip the term "Red Indian"  from the lake and replace it with a Mi'kmaq name meaning Peaceful Lake. That was met with derision by locals, who said they were not consulted.

"I took it on the chin. When we announced the change to the name of the lake, maybe we got a little ahead of ourselves. Live and learn," she said. "People have a connection to places and names. I appreciate that. I understand that."

While $250,000 has been set aside, the province is going to be calling on the federal government to kick in more money. The minister declined to provide an anticipated price tag, saying it's too early in the process.

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador


Ryan Cooke is a journalist in St. John's.