Tuesday, March 24, 2009

"The Beothucks or Red Indians"

As children, we Canadians are taught a bizarre and shameful footnote to our history: immediately after settling in Newfoundland, our ancestors began a three-century project of informal extermination. And I'm not talking about the auks, I'm talking about the Beothuks.

Their story is a sad one of brutality, stupidity, missed opportunities, and belated reparations. The Beothuks (called "red Indians" because they covered themselves with red ocher) were the dominant tribe on the island, living mainly in the interior but coming to the coasts during the summer in order to fish.

European settlers began to arrive in the 15th century, and though there are some stories of goodwill between the cultures, the Beothuks and the settlers REALLY got off on the wrong foot. The Beothuks, probably angry about incursions into their fishing grounds, stole the possessions of the settlers, and the settlers -- meanwhile -- were shooting Beothuks out of some combination of fear, hatred, and sport.

In addition, the French were giving guns to the Mi'kmaq in Labrador, resulting in a serious military imbalance with the Beothuks. Attacked on two fronts, the Beothuks became increasingly evasive, retreating almost entirely to the interior by the 19th century.

It was around this time that philanthropic groups were organized to try to make belated peace with the Beothuks, but the European powers-that-be had a bit of a credibility gap, especially since settlers were still quietly killing Indians. Ultimately the plan of the philanthropists was to find out where the Beothuk were hiding, give them presents, convince one of them to return to town with them, and show the Indian all the joys of civilization. It was thought that when the Indian returned to his tribe, he'd gush about how wonderful the settlers were, and everybody would smoke a peace pipe and get down to some serious fur-trading.

Twenty years later and all the Beothuck had quietly disappeared. Forever.

Right now I'm reading "The Beothucks or Red Indians" by James P. Howley, originally published in 1915. It was Howley's attempt to gather all the information about the Beothuck as possible, and it's basically a reprint of the letters, journals, and proclamations he found.

This format isn't entirely successful. Decades go by without a single update, and then a hundred pages are devoted to material from just a year or two. If an expedition to the Newfoundland interior involved more than one person, he prints ALL their journals about the trip...and then he prints the recollections of people who HEARD about the trip...and then he prints newspaper articles written about the trip a few years later.

It's annoying to read the same thing over and over again, but it does illustrate the unreliability of memory and biography. Everybody describes the situations differently, and as time goes by the stories get more and more inflated. Howley sidesteps this aspect of his book -- simply pointing out in a footnote when somebody is "unclear about" or "misunderstood" the history -- but it's one of the many ironies that a modern reader is able to pick up on.

Another odd thing about the book is how absolutely bungled the whole philanthropic enterprise was. The do-gooders would march into the woods, scare the heck out of some Beothuck by sneaking up on them, accidentally kill one or two, and then kidnap one or more women. They'd spend a year showering the women with gifts. Then, just before returning them to their tribes, the women would die of consumption.

Hey fellas, A+ for effort, but WHAT THE HECK DO YOU IMAGINE THE BEOTHUCK THOUGHT ABOUT THIS? And while acknowledging that the tribe was in danger of complete extinction, did it not occur to anybody that STEALING WOMEN OF CHILDBEARING AGE was the worst thing they could do?

To be fair it seems they really WANTED to kidnap a man, but the women were just easier to catch.

I'd feel more charitably about these heartfelt schemes if the people involved -- even at their most idealistic -- didn't qualify their "reconciliation" plan with the need to "bring the poor brutes to civilization." In the first meeting of the surprisingly liberal 1827 Beothuck Institution, the participants speak highly of the Indian's right to life and land...but they always slip in the verb "to civilize," as though the Beothuck were unable to decide for themselves.

But none of that mattered anyway because the tribe was already dying (if not dead).

Some of the most interesting parts of the book are the vivid accounts of Shanawdithit and Demasduit, two of the captured females who responded to European life in a somewhat delightful way (before dropping dead).

MOST fascinating, however, is the apparently complete narrative of William E. Cormack's east-west journey across Newfoundland. Over several hellish months he pushed through parts of the island that even the Indians wouldn't stray into, and his descriptions are engrossing: every detail about the geography, botany, wildlife, weather, and inhabitants during a trip that nobody had ever taken before, and no sane person would ever do again.

I don't have romantic ideas about Indians OR Europeans, and in this case especially their relationship seemed doomed from the start. Reading this book, though, I'm getting a strangely haunting impression of the situation as seen by both peoples. To the European settlers, living precarious lives in an enormous unmapped wilderness, the Beothuck must have seemed almost devilish, the way they disappeared into the interior, leaving behind deserted wigwams and tumble-down storehouses, coming back only to steal things silently in the night.

And imagine what the Beothuck thought, hiding in the interior that they knew so well, always aware that more and more settlers were living on the fringe. Occasionally the settlers would intrude down the rivers, and the Beothuck would quietly slip away, leaving their villages deserted and starting up elsewhere, further and further from the resources they required.

Eventually, undetected, the last Beothuck died in the middle of all that uncharted forest, and nobody else ever knew.

PS: As I said, this is a romantic impression based on a book written in 1915. Reality suggests that some of the Beothuck DID survive, mainly by mingling with settlers and other tribles.


Lois said...

Hey Muffy.
I have been lurking for the past few weeks/months. Does that sound too creepy? Anyway, just thought I would come out of the side-lines and say Hey!
You really crack me up! I can always count on you for a laugh or two or three.
You should seriously consider writing a book if you haven't already done so. I would buy it for sure! As long as it didn't cost more than $2.00 because I am on a really tight budget right now and that is all I get for my monthly mad money allowance.
Muffy, you just keep on blogging! You'll always have an audience even if you don't hear from me/them/us.
Now I am really starting to sound creepy aren’t I?
Have a great weekend!

Adam Thornton said...

Thanks Lois! It's always great to know that people read and enjoy the blog. That's not creepy...that's great!

As for a book, well, I figure that'll have to wait until I'm post-40. That's when authors usually write their great works, isn't it?