I feel lucky to have learned the history of the Beothuk in grade school. I can’t remember to which teacher I owe gratitude but it was only as an adult that I learned not everyone in Canada learned the history, importance and grievous colonial degradation of their indigenous peoples. I myself am mixed blood - Mi’kmaq, N’lakapamux, Quebecois and Italian. I identify mainly as Mi’kmaq and a Newfoundlander having grown up in the Codroy Valley, Newfoundland.
The story of the Beothuk and especially, Shanawdithit, has stuck with me. I have thought much of her, Nonosabasut and Demasduit over the years. As I grow as an indigenous person in the current cultural climate of Canada I become much more proud of my heritage and culture, connection to the land, my family, and my indigenous lineage. I wish that the same feelings of cultural pride could have been afforded the Beothuk in the passed time. When Shanawdithit died in a St. John’s hospital on June 6, 1829, she was buried in a cemetery in St. Johns without a death ceremony that was conducive to Beothuk cultural practice, buried in a grave without acknowledgement of her as a Beothuk woman. In making this shroud, it is my intention to provide something for her spirit that she may have appreciated as culturally appropriate and beautiful. To offer a gift to heal a historical wound.
According to my research, Beothuk peoples were wrapped in birch bark after death and placed on the earth or slightly below the surface, laid in a cave or rock shelter, sometimes they were placed in a burial box or in a burial hut. People were well respected in death and given copious grave goods ranging from food, animal parts, miniature canoes, smudge, clothing, packets of ochre, pendants, wooden figurines, utensils, bows and quivers, fire stones and other tools.
During the process of creating Shanawdithits Burial Shroud, I had much time to research, read about, and think about the Beothuk, their place in Newfoundland and indigenous Kanata history as well as their present day status. Given the oppression of aboriginal people in this country, the attempt to ‘civilize’ and even eradicate entire populations, beautiful culture and language, traditional food and ceremony, I have my doubts that Beothuk are extinct, as they are said to be. I have met a so called ‘extinct’ Sinixt first nations woman in the Kootenai region of British Columbia. Maybe the end of the Beothuk never happened and it is now our responsibilities, as the first nation people of this land, to challenge colonial approach, express fully our cultures, learn our languages, recognize the gifts of the earth as they are, give tobacco and burn sage.
Project Abstract, Technical Aspect
I worked on this burial shroud for Shanawdithit from February until August 2016. The work was produced on a 10 shaft, countermarche loom and is double woven with 3 ply wool yarn, a fingering weight. The white yarn is undyed, the red yarn is dyed with plants. I achieved the specific tone of red to mimic the colour of red ochre but instead of ochre, utilized madder root (Rubia tinctorum) which is mainly and most often a red giving plant, but brewed at a steep temperature brings out the brown pigment present in the root. I tied up the treadles of the loom to allow the background white yarns to come to the surface of the cloth, above the red cloth layer, enabling me to create pockets which would eventually contain grave goods. In addition to being hand woven and plant dyed, I employed other hand work - beading, braiding and hand manipulated edging. The grave goods are this: moose teeth, birds wings, a miniature canoe (carved by my husband, artist, Ash Hall), smudge wrapped in moose leather and a lock of my own hair.
Research sources for this project are as follows: heritage.nf.ca (multiple pages), The Beothuk - Ingeborg Marshall and therooms.ca. In addition to these sources, I drew from memory and conversations with my family.
At the time of writing this, there has been news that Ottawa is actively supportive of the request to return the remains and grave goods of two Beothuk individuals to the land they belong to from a museum display in The National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh. The respect of the indigenous passed is a important act toward reconciliation, the future health of Kanata’s indigenous people and the healing of relationship between ‘settler’ Canada and native peoples.