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Op-ed: Dr. Daryl Pullman

Bringing home the Beothuk: The ethics of repatriation

Part of a special feature chronicling the transformation of the academy through the inclusion of Indigenous knowledge, voices, critiques, scholars, students and materials at Memorial.


By Dr. Daryl Pullman

The recent news that the skulls of two Beothuk individuals that have been stored in the archives of the National Museum of Scotland since the early 1800s are about to come home to Canada, is long overdue.

However, details of what will happen to the skulls once they are returned to the National Museum of History in Ottawa are still unclear. Almost certainly the skulls will eventually come home to Newfoundland and Labrador.

But whether they will go into storage again, be returned to a local Indigenous community or be subjected to further forensic study, is still unknown.

Ethical debate

Questions about the eventual disposition of the skulls of Demasduit and her husband Nonosabusut represent some of the ongoing ethical tensions in the debate about the repatriation of ancient remains more generally.

On the one hand, those who favour a Western science perspective often argue against repatriation to Indigenous communities, insisting we have an ethical responsibility to preserve and study them in order to advance our knowledge and understanding of a history we all share.

“Indigenous critiques of science often see it as just another tool of European colonialism designed for advancing expansionist ideals.”

Who were the Beothuk and how did they come to this island? What is their relationship to other Indigenous Peoples and to the broader history of North American settlement in general? Is there a possible connection to the Vikings who visited Newfoundland a thousand years ago?

Questions such as these might be informed through further study of these remains. On the other hand, Indigenous critiques of science often see it as just another tool of European colonialism designed for advancing expansionist ideals.

On this latter view justice demands that these bones be returned to their people to be managed in any manner that community deems appropriate.

Skulls are unique and should be treated accordingly

If and when the skulls of Nonosabusut and Demasduit are returned to Newfoundland and Labrador they will become part of the provincial archive of Beothuk remains.

That collection includes the partial skeletal remains of at least 12 other Beothuk individuals currently stored at Queen’s College on Memorial’s St. John’s campus.

Irrespective of where one stands on the broader questions of science versus repatriation, in my view these two skulls are unique among these Beothuk remains and should be treated accordingly.

“The historical details surrounding the skulls of Demasduit and Nonosabusut are a microcosm of the sad history of European encounters with Indigenous populations.”

First, while most ancient remains, including those of the other 12 individuals, are anonymous, we know the identities of these skulls.

We also know a great deal about these individuals’ histories, including how each came to an untimely death at the hands of European colonizers, how and when their skulls were subsequently extracted from a traditional Beothuk burial site and how they ended up in a foreign museum.

In some respects the historical details surrounding the skulls of Demasduit and Nonosabusut are a microcosm of the sad history of European encounters with Indigenous populations throughout North America more generally, and of the often violent and inhumane treatment of Indigenous Peoples here in Newfoundand and Labrador in particular.

Hence these skulls have especial significance not only for local Indigenous communities, but for all the people of Newfoundland and Labrador.

Symbolic significance

For these reasons I would argue that the skulls of Demasduit and Nonosabusut should be returned to a local Indigenous community that now occupies the same territory where the Beothuk once lived.

The Miawpukek Mi’kamawey Mawi’omi First Nation of Conne River, represented by Chief Mi’sel Joe, would be such a community.

Returning the skulls to a local Indigenous community to be honoured in whatever manner they deem appropriate would have symbolic significance not only for Indigenous Peoples but for all Newfoundlanders and Labradorians.

Indeed, as Chief Joe has advocated for the return of the skulls he has graciously maintained that he is speaking not only for the Beothuk, for the Mi’kmaq or even for all Indigenous Peoples, but more broadly for all the peoples of this province.

In a 2017 CBC interview he stated: “The claim I am making is not an Aboriginal claim. It’s a claim for Newfoundland . . . They [the skulls] were stolen from Newfoundland, they belong to us and they should be brought back.”

Note: Dr. Pullman’s paper on this topic, titled Bioarchaeology, Bioethics and the Beothuk, appeared in the American Anthropologist Vol 120, No 1, pp. 11-23, 2017. A shorter version of that paper is included in the recent anthology titled Tracing Ochre, edited by Dr. Fiona Polack, Department of English, Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences, at Memorial, (U of Toronto Press, 2018).


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