Nfld. & Labrador

Indigenous leaders unite for return of Beothuk remains, inclusion in MMIWG inquiry

Leaders representing indigenous groups in Newfoundland and Labrador are requesting the return of the remains of two Beothuk held in the National Museum of Scotland.

Scottish museum said prior requests did not meet criteria, as there are no Beothuk descendants

A painting of Demasduit, believed to be one of the last known Beothuk in Newfoundland.

Leaders representing all Indigenous groups in Newfoundland and Labrador have signed a letter requesting the return of the remains of two Beothuk people held in the National Museum of Scotland.

The push to have the remains returned was started in 2015 by Chief Mi'sel Joe of the Miawpukek First Nation in Conne River.

"The claim I'm making is not an Aboriginal claim. It's a claim for Newfoundland," Joe said on Friday. "They were stolen from Newfoundland, they belong to us and they should be brought back."

In February 2016, Premier Dwight Ball wrote the museum to request the return of the remains, but that request was denied. The museum said it didn't meet criteria set out in Scottish legislation for the repatriation of remains.

The remains in question belong to Demasduit​ and her husband, a chief named Nonosabasut. The museum also has 10 burial items that were removed from their graves.

Demasduit was given the name Mary March by Europeans who captured her in 1819. Nonosabasut was killed that same year, trying to rescue his wife.

Demasduit died of tuberculosis in January of 1820, and was returned to Beothuk land to be buried at Red Indian Lake. 

Her remains were later taken by William Cormack on an expedition in central Newfoundland in search of the Beothuk.

For the remains to be returned, the Scottish museum requires a request from the federal government. It must also have the support of a national museum and be supported by "a community descended from the original owners."

But that last requirement presents a challenge — the Beothuk people were completely wiped out.

The province is hoping that by having all the leaders sign a request supporting the repatriation, it will meet the museum's criteria.

Chief Mi'sel Joe of the Miawpukek First Nation speaks with the media alongside Premier Dwight Ball. (Cal Tobin/CBC)

'It's been a lonely road'

The signing happened Friday at the first Indigenous leaders roundtable hosted by the province.

"It's been a lonely road up to now," Joe said of his fight for the remains. 

"I think the Royal Museum in Scotland has kind of looked at me as one lonely Indian showing up, and wanting the remains brought back that he had no claim to."

Federal Minister of Heritage Mélanie Joly has written the museum with word that a formal request is coming.

Meanwhile, a spokesperson for the museum told CBC News in an email that staff "are continuing a constructive dialogue with the government and its civil servants."

Inclusion in MMIWG Inquiry

Friday's roundtable also took on issues such as missing and murdered Indigenous woman and girls, mental health and addictions.

A letter was signed by all 11 groups at the table requesting more involvement with the inquiry into missing and murdered women and girls.

"Getting the inquiry in Newfoundland and Labrador is important for us," Ball told reporters after the roundtable.

​An inquiry was launched in 2015 with consultations held in every province — except Newfoundland and Labrador, New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island.

Ball called it a landmark meeting for Indigenous relations.


Peter Cowan

CBC News

Peter Cowan is a St. John's-based reporter with CBC News.