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.
Other essays explore how the extinction narrative served to dispossess the Mi’kmaq and the myth of Mi’kmaw and Innu collusion in the Beothuk’s extinction served to silence them. The story of the French first bringing Mi’kmaq to Newfoundland as mercenaries to kill the Beothuk is well-known. In a conversation between Chief Mi’sel Joe and Christopher Aylward, we hear that the Mi’kmaq passed down knowledge of how they inter-married with the Beothuk and helped many escape to Nova Scotia where they provided them with shelter. Elizabeth Penushue and Elizabeth Yeoman question the distinction between Innu and Beothuk peoples. Penushue posits that in her language there is no distinction between the two. With Daryll Pullman’s chapter on the exhumation of Nonosabasut and his wife Demasduit, the importance of recognizing Beothuk ancestry among the Innu and Mi’kmaw is emphasized, while simultaneously atrocities against the Beothuk continue with the desecration of their dead. The skulls of Nonosabasut and Demasduit are stored anonymously amid numerous other skulls and placed unceremoniously in cardboard boxes in Scotland. With the extinction of the Beothuk, Pullman ponders who has the authority to speak for the Beothuk so that their legacy – whether their very bodies, or cultural artifacts, or stories – are properly honoured.
Some contributors question who is speaking as the Other and investigate the sources that informed the Beothuk extinction narrative. They find that past scholars clearly favored settler versions. Lisa Rankin, an archeologist, highlights inherent problems within her discipline as Indigenous voices are not taken into account, leading to the Beothuk often being depicted “as a primitive isolated culture inhabiting a marginal landscape” and as a people who ”simply vanished unable to cope with European colonialist endeavors” (177). Christopher Aylward examines the work of James Howley and Frank Speck on the Beothuk and finds that Howley used primary sources that had a vested interest in portraying the Beothuk’s primitive nature as a contributing factor to their extinction. Speck, on the other hand, interviewed Santu, a descendant of the Beothuk, as well as John Paul, a Mi’kmaq, who pointed out that the Mi’kmaq had sheltered the Beothuk and hid this knowledge so as to shield them from retaliatory measures. Despite Speck being a well-regarded anthropologist and Howley’s use of questionable sources, Howley’s narrative – with its focus on extinction – is more widely accepted and promulgated than Speck’s, which is generally only known to specialists.
In the fourth section, entitled “Travelling Tales”, the contributors explore the connection of the extinction narrative to colonialist identity formation. Beverly Diamond re-conceptualizes the life of Santu Toney, a woman born to a Mi’kmaw mother and Beothuk father. Santu Toney was one among many northeastern Indigenous women who functioned as cultural mediators, travelling across cultural boundaries as a basket-maker, singer, and entrepreneur. By de-islanding the Beothuk, by extending their agency off the Island, it is evident that their culture was neither discrete nor static. Bonita Lawrence reveals how “colonial definitions of Indigeneity are a central means through which both denial of recognition and concepts of extinction are maintained” (298). She discusses the roots of rhetorical savagery to show how Indigenous people were depicted as excessively savage – not willing to trade with Europeans – and thus “could be warred upon with impunity” (301). First Nation recognition can be denied but this does not mean that they are extinct. They continue to maintain their identity as Indigenous peoples, but it does present significant obstacles: loss of language and ceremony and an inability to protect lands from traditional development. Lawrence asserts that the remaining survivors of Beothuk genocide must make claim for their land base.
Tracing Ochre clearly achieves its objective of destabilizing the Beothuk extinction narrative. In the final chapters by Polack and J. Edward Chamberlain, avenues of resistance are evident. Polack shows how a Tasmanian re-conceptualization of a British-derived past resulted in the return of some of their territories. Chamberlain argues that is one way to recuperate and revitalize the Beothuk. Keeping this in mind, extinction narratives are also currently being employed to describe the state of Indigenous languages. As is evident in Tracing Ochre, separation from land is connected to silencing Indigenous voices. Without access to our land and resources, our languages will not thrive. Polack’s book is a step in the right direction as it highlights the connection between authenticity and the process of silencing and displacing Indigenous people. As we fight for thriving communities, dispelling the image of the vanishing Indian will be fundamental to that success.
Natasha Simon is a Mi’kmaq from Elsipogtog in the Signigtog District and a PhD candidate in History at the University of New Brunswick (Fredericton). She is currently researching the life of her great-grandmother, a well-known healer and midwife in the Signigtog District.