Beothuk Romanticism and Mi’Kmaq Realities

The Beothuk hold a unique place in Newfoundland culture. Objects of romanticism, they can be found in songs, poems, and paintings. Oft-repeated are claims of how their presence can sometimes be felt in the woods. But what are the roots of Beothuk romanticism and how does it impact the island’s surviving Indigenous people, the Mi’kmaq?

As most know, the Beothuk were a small Indigenous group of about 200-300 when Europeans arrived, pushed them away from harbours, and brought disease and violent conflict. The Mi’kmaq were a larger Eastern Algonquian people with a vast homeland, called Mi’kma’ki, extending from Quebec’s Gaspé Peninsula through the Maritimes, the Magdalen Islands, St. Pierre and Miquelon, and parts of Newfoundland. Northern Indigenous people like the Mi’Kmaq did not farm but moved from one place to another during the seasons to access resources. As anthropologist Charles Martijn has proven, Newfoundland was very much a part of their ancient domain of islands. Newfoundland was as much home to the Mi’Kmaq as Nova Scotia or PEI. Europeans have never understood this form of land-use: for them, no fences and no farming meant no ownership.  To Europeans this simply meant they could claim the land for themselves.

The Beothuk’ ‘ownership’ of the island has never been disputed. Many Newfoundlanders feel sorry for the Beothuk and express regret because on some level we know that our ancestors, even by their mere presence, had a hand in their demise. As the current occupiers of the beloved pine-clad hills and windswept land, we benefit from their loss.

Culturally, Newfoundlanders of European descent are considered the natural inheritors of the island from the lost Beothuk. This motif is explicitly echoed in Bernice Morgan’s novel, Cloud of Bone, in which Shanawdithit, the presumed last Beothuk, literally breathes her story into Kyle, a Newfoundlander who deserts the British Navy during World War II. The Beothuk are gone and the torch has been passed to Newfoundlanders of European descent.

The Mi’Kmaq are strikingly absent from this narrative. The Mi’Kmaq remain on the island but, unlike the Beothuk, they are not the objects of white guilt. In fact, they are, at least subconsciously, viewed as something of a threat; unlike the Beothuk, they might want some form of restitution or try to block resource development, such as fracking. Their ongoing presence makes the provincial government uneasy. Reflecting the longstanding opposition to Mi’Kmaq land claims, former premier Brian Peckford once rather preposterously proclaimed that his English ancestors were here before the Mi’Kmaq.

Like virtually all surviving Indigenous people in the western world, the Mi’Kmaq were denigrated. Stories abound of Mi’Kmaq men having to eat their lunches outdoors at the mill in Grand Falls-Windsor and of being denied employment in Corner Brook. The derogatory word ‘jackatar’ was bandied about for decades and the Mi’Kmaq were, without a shred of evidence, blamed for killing off the Beothuk. No wonder so many Mi’Kmaq reacted by hiding or trying to hide their identity. This is the coping mechanism of oppressed people all over the globe: the Cajuns of Louisiana, Native Americans and First Nations all over the North American continent, the Saami of Scandinavia, and many, many more. It’s rooted in the very human desire for one’s children to have a better life, to escape ridicule in the classroom, and end up with a good job.

Today some blame Mi’Kmaq for not being authentic, meaning they are not like the Beothuk who lived in tents, painted their faces, and hunted with spears. This and cynicism about the bands represent the continuation of jacktar name-calling. If the Beothuk were alive today, they would use cell phones, live in houses, blockade the TCH if it suited their political ends, and have status cards in their wallets. Every culture changes, especially in recent decades; the descendants of the English, the French, Italians, Koreans, and Kenyans all adopted or adapted to new technology, altered economies, transformed religious beliefs and practices, modified gender roles, and so on. This is generally allowed and understood – but not for Indigenous people, upon whom there is pressure to remain unchanged. In the case of the Newfoundland Mi’Kmaq, a trip to the mall in jeans can lead to assumptions of inauthenticity. The deification of the Beothuk to status of the island’s only genuine Indians makes this double standard especially hard to navigate for the Newfoundland Mi’Kmaq.

While I did not grow up in one of the province’s Mi’Kmaq community, I have Mi’Kmaq ancestry and love that it gives me such deep roots on the island. I have long been a member of a Federation of Newfoundland Indian band and now, the new Indian Act band, Qalipu Mi’Kmaq First Nation. State recognition under the Indian Act was not sudden or granted – it was hard fought, the result of a complicated forty-year struggle led by the Federation of Newfoundland Indians (FNI) and its 14,000 members and, need I say, it remains contested. Like many other Newfoundland Mi’Kmaq, I have settler ancestry, too; there was bound to be such mixing on the South Coast of the island with its sparse population. (And I proudly carry an Irish passport but that is a story for another day.)

I resent the way the federal government forces an either/or category on people with Indigenous ancestry, especially after hundreds of years of European presence. I want to claim all my ancestors; my husband and I have raised our child to be both/and, to be integrated and whole, not denying any of her heritage. If the Beothuk had survived, they’d have mixed ancestry by this time; the low numbers would have dictated it. In fact, there were already marriages between the Mi’Kmaq and the Beothuk, as well as the Innu; anthropologist Frank Speck wrote about all this in his 1922 book and he recorded a song by Santu, the daughter of a Beothuk man and a Mi’Kmaq woman who lived into the 20thcentury.

It’s about much more than blood and DNA. Despite the stigma, Newfoundland Mi’Kmaq values endured, and values are the heart of culture, how we see and live in the world. Mi’Kmaq values include the emphasis on the collective versus the individual, the eschewing of the material, and the understanding that one is merely part of something huge, made by the Creator or God. I saw these values regularly in my childhood through the generosity of my great-aunt Rachel, my older cousins’ disregard for the material, the tradition of hair-cutting after mourning, and my aunts’ devotion to St. Anne, the patron saint of the Mi’Kmaq and the successor to the Grandmother of the Mi’Kmaq creation stories.

No one celebrated or even mentioned the Mi’Kmaq origins of these practices in those days. But that was hardly unique to us. We might not realize it but the stigma and self-denial associated with the Mi’Kmaq mirrors processes among First Nations all over Canada (and beyond). Another widespread movement, one that celebrates Indigenous culture after years of not doing so, is known locally as the Mi’Kmaq cultural revival. This term – cultural revival — makes me cringe as it ignores continuity and sometimes rigidly focuses on performance and beliefs about protocol, skipping over the values that ought to be at the centre. Protocol does matter but the spirit of the thing matters more. For instance, people with allergies to smoke can be accommodated through smokeless or limited smudges; inclusion matters more than what are sometimes seen as rules.

Frank Speck’s book was called Beothuk and Micmac. That’s the way it should be. We should honour the Beothuk and this honouring should extend to their cousins, the Mi’Kmaq, the other Indigenous people of the island of Newfoundland. Above all, it should include respect for contemporary Newfoundland Mi’Kmaq identities and support for Newfoundland Mi’Kmaq political, economic and cultural goals.

Maura Hanrahan, PhD, is Board of Governors Research Chair and Associate Professor in Geography at the University of Lethbridge, Alberta. Her new book is Unchained Man: The Arctic Life and Times of Captain Robert Abram Bartlett. She also has a chapter in Tracing Ochre: Changing Perspectives on the Beothuk (Fiona Polack, editor): “Good and Bad Indians: Romanticizing the Beothuk and Denigrating the Mi’kmaq.”
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