CONNE RIVER, N.L. - It has been a journey that has lasted for nearly two centuries.
Now, that journey is approaching its end as the National Museum of Scotland has agreed to return the remains of Beothuks Nonosabasut and Demasduit closer to home.
Their remains have been in Scotland since 1827 and will be transferred to the Canadian Museum of History in Ottawa. They were discovered by a Newfoundlander in 1928, unearthed and shipped to Scotland.
William Epps Cormack, a Newfoundlander from St. John's, discovered the remains in a tomb in 1828 and shipped them to his mentor — Professor Robert Jameson — for the collection of artifacts at the University Museum in Edinburgh. They were later transferred to the Industrial Museum of Scotland in the 1850s, now known as the National Museum of Scotland.
The plight of the Beothuk people, who have been extinct since 1829, when last known survivor Shawnadithit died in St. John’s, has been near to the hearts of members of the Indigenous community in Newfoundland and Labrador for many years, and shared by people in this province and across Canada.
Chief Mi’sel Joe of the Miawpukek First Nation in Conne River has led the charge to have the remains repatriated to their birthplace.
“It’s just a little bit overwhelming,” he said Monday in Conne River, where he was attending a Salite, a sacred Mi’kmaq post-burial tradition, for Chantel John, the 28-year-old woman killed in Conne River Jan. 9.
“This morning, when I spoke to the premier, I want to keep saying ‘yahoo!’ … I’m glad it’s happening. It’s long
overdue; almost 200 years or so…,” Joe said “This is finally happening after four-and-a-half years for me. It’s been since 2018 for the premier and the provincial government making the request.”
Joe said he thought the process would take a lot longer than it did and thanked the provincial government for its support in helping expediate the process. He said it was good news for the Indigenous community and for the people of Newfoundland and Labrador.
“Today’s news that we are one step closer to the repatriation of the Beothuk remains held by National Museum of Scotland is tremendously significant — for Indigenous communities, for our province and for Canada,’’ Premier Dwight Ball said in a news release.
“Our government and Indigenous leaders throughout our province came together at Newfoundland and Labrador’s first ever Indigenous Leaders Roundtable in 2017 to make this a priority — and to partner with the federal government in advancing this work. I especially want to thank Miawpukek First Nation Chief Mi’sel Joe for his leadership and international advocacy on this issue,” he added.
“Through tremendous partnership and perseverance, we can restore these remains to their rightful home, reflect on what has been lost, and be hopeful about what can be gained through reconciliation, and by honouring Indigenous culture," the release went on to say.
Joe first started advocating for the return in 2014 and ran into some roadblocks initially. Once he got others involved in the process, he travelled to Scotland to meet with officials at the museum and brought information back to local politicians and Indigenous leaders.
Museum officials said in 2016 that a request would have to come from the federal government to start the process of having the remains returned, which was done, making Monday’s announcement made possible.
“The first time (I travelled to Scotland), I didn’t see them. They said they were in another building and I couldn’t see them,” the chief said. “The next time I went back, I was able to see the remains and did a little sweetgrass ceremony. I said, ‘I’ll be back, we want to have those remains back in Canada.’
“And I jokingly said before I left, if I don’t see them the next time, I’m going to dig up (Scottish poet) Robbie Burns. It was just a joke,” he added.
After the second visit, Joe participated in a roundtable discussion in this province with the premier and Indigenous leaders, and formulated a plan that involved the federal government to help with the repatriation request.
“We don’t have a timeline at this stage, but it’s going to happen, from what I read this morning and what the premier said,” Joe said. “I think the next step is we have to get a timeline. We have to put together what kind of ceremony we going to do.”
Groups in Canada have been saying there should be an honour guard that leaves Scotland with the remains, brings them to Ottawa, and have a ceremony there, perhaps involving the Assembly of First Nations.