The Vanished Beothuk
- Ingeborg Marshall (Author)
A History and Ethnography of the Beothuk. McGill-Queen's University Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Jennifer S. H. Brown
This remarkable book is a labour of devotion and intensive research. Ingeborg Marshall has worked on the Beothuk for over two decades, drawing upon an amazing range of sources, and the result will surely stand for years to come as the definitive work on the subject.
The first fifteen chapters reconstruct Beothuk history from earliest sixteenth-century European contacts to the demise of the last known members of the group in the early 1800s. The next thirteen chapters, under the heading Ethnography, encompass the efforts of Marshall and many others to reconstruct Beothuk prehistory, population, subsistence, material culture, world view, and language, using all the tools of archaeology, ethnology, and linguistics that can assist interpretation of the often discouragingly scant evidence. Surviving word lists, for example, record fewer than 400 words of the language. Marshall supports a probable Algonquian affiliation but notes that the Beothuk language seems so distinctive that it must have begun to diverge from its Algonquian neighbours well over 2000 years ago.
The Beothuk have long been known superficially to Canadians; this book will satisfy readers’ curiosity on all matters that may intrigue them. The original "Red Indians" were known as such because of their generous use of red ochre or other red clays to cover not only their bodies but their skin clothing and other possessions. The colour probably had associations with life and power, but Marshall adds that the ferrous oxides in the ochre helped to preserve and waterproof leather items by countering bacterial damage. The distinctive Beothuk canoes with their peaked midpoints, and the mamateeks (dwellings) remarked upon by visitors receive detailed and well illustrated accounts of their construction and their varying forms and functions.
Also striking is the information on Beothuk storehouses in which large amounts of dried and smoked meat were kept—a pattern contrasting with the food customs of mainland subarctic hunters. The meat came mainly from caribou, harvested during their fall migrations across the Exploits River which nearly bisects Newfoundland across what was once a Beothuk heartland. Early observers described the fences, up to sixty kilometres long, which the Beothuk built along the river to direct the caribou to ideal hunting sites—an activity clearly requiring leadership and cooperative labour. Other key resources included seals, sea birds (notably the flightless Great Auk) and their eggs, and salmon and other fish.
Beginning in the 1500s, European codfishers increasingly impinged on Beothuk summer campsites on beaches near river mouths. The groups had nothing in common except an interest in using the shore and its resources; and when the Beothuk seized opportunities to harvest iron tools, nails, and other items during the intruders’ absences, tensions grew. By the time that some English became interested in trading for furs, sporadic conflicts had engendered fear and suspicion on both sides, and most of the rare exchanges occurred as "silent trade"; goods left by one party were looked over by the other which took what it desired, leaving other items in return. The lack of trade progress over three hundred years was epitomized in 1808, when a painting showing "Indians and Europeans in a group" exchanging furs for blankets, hatchets, and so on, was commissioned in England and deposited at a likely site with various gifts, in hopes the Beothuk would open trade as the picture invited. The offerings drew no visitors.
Meanwhile, olher English activities, especially in the 1700s, had increasingly damaged the Beothuk resource base. Lacking trade partners, English "furriers" themselves became trappers, encroaching on a small population which, even at first contact, may have numbered 1600 at most. In about 1708, commercial salmon fishing began to devastate another Beothuk staple; by the early 1800s, the English faced precipitous declines in their own catches. A similar pattern developed in the late 1700s, as the Beothuk were cut off from their supplies of offshore island seabirds whose eggs they hard-boiled, dried or powdered for future use.
The Beothuk response was retreat and avoidance except for occasional retaliations against English attacks and abuse. More than any other Native group, they maintained their own material culture in the face of the newcomers. Few European items interested them: furriers’ traps were reshaped into arrow points or other small tools; sails might cover mamateeks; fishnets were unwoven for ropes; axes helped build bigger caribou fences. The Beothuk showed strong aversion to guns, sometimes destroying those they took in raids. Marshall found only one instance of Beothuk being served alcohol, by John Guy in 1612, and the woman Demasduit, captive for a year among the English in 1819, dis- liked it when offered.
Avoidance reduced Beothuk casualties from warfare and disease; their isolation spared them from the worst of the epidemics that came among their neighbours. Hostility with outsiders became endemic, however, and was mitigated too late by the humanitarian impulses that some English expressed by the late 1700s. Every death resulting from English attack loomed larger as the people’s numbers and food resources shrank; and in the last surviving encampments, the desperate and undernourished relatives of the best known survivor, Shanawdithit (d. 1829), probably succumbed mainly to tuberculosis, as did Shanawdithit herself. The Beothuk were spared the incursions of fur traders, missionaries, and Indian agents; but on the other side of the coin, no European commercial, religious, or political institution acquired a vested interest in their economy, salvation, or survival.
The text contains a few typos, and some repetition arises from the author’s debatable decision to separate "history" from "ethnography;" but in a work of this size, some redundancy helps keep readers on track. Reproductions of some historical maps and plates are too small for their writing to be decipherable. To judge by the winter conditions in the last decades of Beothuk survival, the growing severity of the climate in that period is a variable deserving attention. But overall, this is a wonderful book, readable and absorbing for those who read it straight through, and encyclopedic for those wishing a comprehensive reference work on a little understood Canadian Aboriginal people.
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MLA: Brown, Jennifer S. H. The Vanished Beothuk. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 19 June 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #161-162 (Summer/Autumn 1999), On Thomas King. (pg. 226 - 227)
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