The remains of a Beothuk couple, Demasduit and Nonosabasut, have been returned from the National Museums Scotland to the Canadian Museum of History and then transferred to The Rooms in Newfoundland. The case raises some of the complications often encountered during repatriation around genealogical and social relations between claimants and the remains claimed.
Demasduit was kidnapped by a white settler in Newfoundland in 1819; her husband Nonosabasut was killed trying to defend her. Their infant son died a few days later. Demasduit was taken to St. John’s and died in 1820. Her coffined body was returned to the area where she had been captured, and subsequently buried with the remains of her husband and infant by the few remaining Beothuk. Seven years later, William Cormack removed the skulls of Demasduit and Nonosabasut and sent them to the University of Edinburgh along with some grave goods. These were all transferred over time to the collections of the National Museums of Scotland.
[Drawing, Shawnadithit, c.1820-28; Library and Archives Canada ARCH E99 B4H8]
Newfoundland Mi’kmaq people began to make calls to return and rebury the skulls by 2015, but the claim has been complicated by the lack of direct Beothuk descendants. In essence, it has been made by a third party, the Newfoundland Mi’kmaq, and particularly has been driven by Chief Mi’sel Joe of Miawpukek First Nation. Chief Joe’s concern to return Demasduit’s and Nonosabasut’s remains was taken up by a number of settler officials. In 2015, a NL federal minister presented a private member’s motion in the Federal House of Commons, requesting the remains be returned (M-618 Demasduit).
Most repatriation policies require lineal or social descendants to make the claim in order to ensure that third parties don’t deny items and remains to more legitimate claimants. This is a very difficult process to navigate. The University of Winnipeg’s Department of Anthropology staff, for instance, gave sacred items to a third party, the Three Fires Society, after Three Fires requested them in order to heal Indigenous people with whom they worked. However, the collection was well documented to a particular community of origin in northern Manitoba, Paungassi, which was never consulted by University of Winnipeg staff about the transfer. Three Fires is an important and legitimate Indigenous spiritual group, but their taking possession of Paungassi sacred heritage items was not technically repatriation. It also raised issues of poor stewardship by a museum of an important heritage collection.
6.2 The Board of Trustees will only consider a request submitted by a National Government or recognised National Agency (Museum) supported by a National Government, with clear endorsement from a community descended from those to whom the remains are ancestral.
The policy continues, however:
6.4.4 Where there is no known community with direct genealogical descent or shared culture with the community whose remains are under claim, then the National Government with jurisdiction over the area where they once lived and the recognised National Agency (Museum) will be treated as acting on their behalf.
To comply with this policy, the claim was made formally in 2016 by Canadian Federal Heritage Minister Melanie Joly to the Director of the National Museums Scotland, Dr. Gordon Rintoul. NMS then deliberated the claim internally, and made its recommendation to the Scottish government as required. When the return was approved by government, Nonosabasut’s and Demasduit’s skulls were sent to the Canadian Museum of History, and finally returned by CMH to Newfoundland to be cared for at The Rooms, the provincial museum. They are, as Chief Joe has noted, not quite home yet, but almost.
This case provides an important precedent for one group of Indigenous people taking responsibility for repatriation of remains belonging to another Indigenous group that is no longer viable and cannot represent itself. Given that no Beothuk representatives could be consulted, and with the request coming formally from the Canadian government and with CMH stepping forward as the national museum to become the recipient, pathways were created to eventually send the remains to Newfoundland. That lleaders representing all Indigenous groups in Newfoundland and Labrador signed a letter requesting the return of the remains in May 2017 was also key in this case, signalling that no alternative or competing claimant would emerge at a later date and helping to satisfy the NMS’s concern to demonstrate due diligence.
In accordance with its policy on human remains, which states that NMS “will not consider grave goods associated with human remains” for return, NMS retains the grave goods removed along with the skulls: three birchbark containers and a canoe model. The Museum also retained tooth 48 (Nonosabasut) and toot 26 (Demasduit) for DNA analysis. Demasduit and Nonosabasut are not—quite—home.
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