Fiona Polack, ed. Tracing Ochre: Changing Perspectives on the Beothuk (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2018).
By Natasha Simon
The vanishing Indian has been a persistent image in the settler imagination: it points to an indistinguishable time in the past when Native people were wholly themselves; it implies that they cannot be truly alive in the present; and it places the blame on the arrival of Europeans and their subsequent actions. This narrative of inevitable decline in the face of progress freezes Native people’s agency in the past and is fundamental to circumventing Indigenous legal systems and civil rights. Moreover, the finality of vanishing, of extinction – from potential calamity to violence, death and total annihilation – opens the space for settlers not only to displace Indigenous people, but to replace them entirely as the original and authentic people of a land. In Tracing Ochre, Fiona Polack, along with contributors from various disciplines, demonstrates that the Beothuk extinction narrative was a product of this process of imperialism – a product cultured within the confines of the great rock of Newfoundland, the shared territory of Innu, Mi’kmaq and Beothuk.
In the opening essay, Polack challenges Ingeborg Marshall’s claim in A History and Ethnography of the Beothuk that the Beothuk were the sole Indigenous people on the Island and were hunted down “like wild animals” until no trace of them remained. Other contributors analyze the sources of the Beothuk extinction narrative, as well as the sources that challenge those settler narratives that silenced the voices of Innu and Mi’kmaq on the Island. In sixteen compelling essays, the contributors persuasively destabilize the narrative of Beothuk extinction, restore Innu and Mi’kmaw voices, and expose their dispossession.
In Maura Hanrahan’s essay, we find that the fruits of colonial memory include Mi’kmaw dispossession of the Island. She considers the Beothuk Institute’s commemoration of the “last surviving Beothuk”, Shanawdothit, through a hollow-eyed stone statue of a forlorn figure standing alone in a wild forest, “completely decontextualized and entirely a symbol” (41). Without community, Shanawdothit is lifeless, and as a potential life-giver, her solitude represents the doom of her race. “With the Indians dead or dying, the space is available for the solidification of . . . a Newfoundland national identity” (41). This romanticizing of the Beothuk acknowledges the settlers’ part in their demise and ignores unresolved Mi’kmaq land claims. She points alternatively to Parks Canada at Kejimkujik where the Mi’kmaq participated in planning a commemoration to the Mi’kmaq way of life. There the whole landscape – habitation sites, travel routes, hunting and fishing grounds and burial sites – is used to testify as to who the Mi’kmaq were and still are – Hanrahan calls it an Indigenous cultural landscape framework.