(Kidnapped by a European fur trader in 1819, Demasduit, renamed as Mary March, died in 1820 from tuberculosis. She was then returned back to her nation and buried at Red Indian Lake.)
The federal government has officially requested that a museum in Scotland return Beothuk remains they have held for more than a century.
The Beothuk people of Newfoundland have been extinct since 1829.
“I’m surprised and disappointed that it’s taken that long for [the government] to do this,” says Chief Mi’sel Joe about the request.
Joe is the chief of the Miawpukek First Nation, a Mi’kmaq community located at Conne River in Newfoundland and Labrador.
He travelled to Scotland on two occasions in the past few years, trying to bring the remains back to Canada.
In November, the federal Canadian Heritage department sent a formal request to the National Museums Scotland for Beothuk remains that have been there since the 1850s, APTN Investigates has learned.
Recently APTN Investigates reported hundreds of human remains held at universities across Canada, citing a slow repatriation process.
Ancient Beothuk skulls at museum
Joe and other Mi’kmaq people had been seeking the return of the remains for years.
In 2016, the National Museums Scotland said that a formal request for the remains would need to come from Canada’s federal government, the National Gallery of Canada and the Indigenous communities where the remains come from, according to a communications advisor with the government of Newfoundland and Labrador.
Dwight Ball, the premier of Newfoundland and Labrador, also sent a letter of support of efforts to repatriate the remains and to “ensure there is no further injustice to their memory.”
The National Museums Scotland said in an email, that there are two skulls in their collection belonging to a Beothuk husband and wife named Demasduit and Nonosabasut. The remains come from Red Indian Lake in central Newfoundland, according to a provincial government source.
(Chief Mi’sel Joe)
William Epps Cormack, the son of a Scottish merchant, stole the skulls and burial objects in 1827 and gave them to his mentor to be included in the collection at the University of Museum in Edinburgh, now being cared for by the National Museums Scotland.
The province said there are also funeral objects associated with a burial at the museum.
“It has been a long, drawn-out process,” says Chief Joe. “The government of Newfoundland is on side with this. There was a private member’s bill that was passed . . . I, along with the premier and other chiefs from Newfoundland signed a letter to the museum to have those remains brought back to Newfoundland.”
A declaration organized by the government of Newfoundland was signed by Nunatsiavut Government, Innu Nation, NunatuKavut Community Council, Miawpukek First Nation and Qalipu First Nation in May 2017.
One year later, Canada finally makes formal request for remains
When asked why it took so long to make a formal request to the National Museums Scotland, a spokesperson with the Department of Canadian Heritage wrote, “the requirements of the policy and legislation of National Museums Scotland for such requests meant that a range of elements and partnerships were required in order to ensure that the formal request was complete and that it allowed for the most compelling argument possible for the return of the remains.”
A provincial government spokesperson said the request was complex based on the fact that there are no genealogical descendants that can represent the interests of Demasduit and Nonosabasut.
In the museum’s Human Remains in Collections Policy, it also states any request “would need to provide evidence of cultural importance, including cultural and spiritual relevance, to the community making the claim and identify the strength of the connection of the community to the remains and the consequences of their return.”
Canadian Heritage asked for the return of the burial objects but according to the policy of National Museums Scotland only human remains can be returned and not “grave goods.”
APTN asked the museum about the return of the burial objects, but they did not reply to our questions.
Both the government of Newfoundland and Labrador and Canadian Heritage said they are still waiting for a response from the National Museums Scotland.
APTN contacted the museum and was told they have received a formal request from the Canadian government and it “will now be considered in line with our Human Remains in Collections Policy.”
In its policy, any requests will undergo a preliminary evaluation by the Director of Collections and a rigorous evaluation by the museum’s board of trustees.
“I don’t want this to be an Aboriginal issue, I want this to be a Newfoundland issue because those remains belong to this province, not just to me but to all the people of Newfoundland,” says chief Joe.
“There is no logical reason for them not to give them up.”