Tracing Ochre: Changing Perspectives on the Beothuk, edited by Fiona Polack

This is a scholarly book — a collection of essays on the theme of the Beothuk, the narrative around their extinction, and what that means for how Indigenous people are perceived in Newfoundland and Labrador, among other things — but quite accessible to the interested general reader. It was loaned to me by an Indigenous friend who was helping me think through the way Indigenous characters and questions are addressed in some of my historical writing. The book is subtitled “Changing Perspectives on the Beothuk,” and reading it really did change my perspective.

What did I, as a settler child growing up St. John’s, Newfoundland, learn about the Indigenous people who lived in our part of the world before my ancestors got here? I learned that they were a people called the Beothuk, that they became extinct as a direct result of the actions of my English ancestors — something we should always feel ashamed of — and that the last Beothuk, Shawnawdithit, died in 1829, leaving the only record of her culture and language with a Scotsman named William Cormack in whose house she resided near the end of her life.

I did not learn the mythology that the Mi’kmaq helped settlers to “wipe out” the Beothuk or were enemies of the Beothuk, but that may be because (and I honestly don’t know which is worse), I didn’t learn anything about the Mi’kmaq, or about the Innu of Labrador either, until I was a young adult. I knew there were what we once called “Eskimos” — Inuit people — in Labrador, but did not learn anything about Mi’kmaq and Innu people, two First Nations groups living in the province where I grew up and got my education.

In recent years I’ve become aware of some of the ways in which the “Beothuk extinction” story, and the way it’s told, have been challenged, and of the likelihood that there are people today who may identify as Mi’kmaq, as Innu, as white/English, or as mixed-race, who have Beothuk ancestors. The once-popular idea that Beothuk lived entirely to themselves and all died out without any of them ever taking refuge among or intermarrying with other Indigenous people or settlers, now seems more unlikely.

But what does this mean, in terms of the way we understand “extinction”? This what this book really helped me to think about (including challenging some ideas in ways that were uncomfortable for me, which is always good for learning). Several of the essays in this book (one that particularly stood out for me was Lianne C. Leddy’s “Historical Sources and the Beothuk: Questioning Settler Interpretations”) forced me to think about how the story of Beothuk extinction functions as a guilt-inducing myth, but also as both a romantic and a convenient myth, for the province’s British-descended settler population.

When I say “myth” I don’t mean it’s entirely untrue. No author in this volume would, I think, debate the fact that the loss of the Beothuk nation as a distinct identity, the loss of Beothuk language and history, was a huge and significant loss. The fact that people are alive today who share DNA with Beothuk ancestors does not in any way erase or excuse the genocide of a people. But by framing our story of Beothuk/settler interactions in terms of the Beothuk as a “vanished people,” we deny their continuity with and similarity to other Indigenous groups in the region, often going so far as to frame it in terms of, as Maura Hanrahan writes in her essay, “Good Indians and Bad Indians.” The essay is subtitled: “Romanticizing the Beothuk and Denigrating the Mi’kmaq.”

No white settler today (except someone who was out as a horrendous racist) would say aloud “The only good Indian is a dead Indian,” as several white Americans in the 19th century, including Teddy Roosevelt, are reputed to have said. But there is something convenient in the myth of the “good dead Indians” — the mysterious, noble people of the past we are so sorry we accidentally made extinct — contrasted with the complicated, messy, living Indigenous people of today, who come complete with land claims and social problems and, in many cases, mixed Indigenous/settler heritage so that we are able to question them on whether they are really “Indian enough” to deserve the respect we posthumously give the Beothuk.

These are tangly and difficult questions here in Newfoundland, where settler-Newfoundlanders are quick to criticize if Mi’kmaq leaders are perceived as “speaking for the Beothuk,” while sometimes being quite willing to do that speaking ourselves. This book made me question many of the narratives I had absorbed consciously and unconsciously: to wonder why I knew so much about the version of the Beothuk story based on James Howley’s work, for example, and had never heard of the work of Frank Speck, which presents the idea of Beothuk “extinction” in a rather different light. Why I knew the stories of Demasduit and Shawnawdithit so well, but not the story of Santu Toney (on whom this book contains an excellent essay).

That my settler ancestors moved onto this land as if it was theirs for the taking; that they pushed the Indigenous Beothuk population to the point of extinction while marginalizing or assimilating the Mi’kmaq, Innu, and Inuit populations — these are not just historical tragedies, but historical crimes. What this book does is question and explore the stories we tell about these histories, and how the way we think about the Beothuk people impacts our understanding of Indigenous people in Newfoundland and Labrador today.

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