When Shanawdithit, said to be the last known Beothuk, died of tuberculosis in 1829 at St. John’s in Eastern Canada’s Newfoundland Labrador, the Beothuk tribe of Newfoundland was recorded in history books as extinct. Today, 188 years later, a woman is challenging the written word and says she carries the bloodline of those aboriginal people. She also says she has the proof to back it up.
Her claim has been met with skepticism.
“I thought it would be a happy thing to let the world know that Beothuk are a small [tribe] but we are not extinct; we are alive even now,” said Carol Reynolds Boyce, who is leading a group that wants to be recognized as Beothuk First Nation. She said she was voted by the council as chief of the tribe. On facebook, the group goes by Beothuk First Nation Tribe of Canada and North America Reservation INCand describes the purpose of their page as: “Reviving, Gathering & Healing the Beothuk Tribe, thought to be extinct due to Genocide in Newfoundland Labrador Canada and North America.”
The Beothuk, said to be distant relatives of the Algonquin, came to Newfoundland from Labrador. They were hunter-gathering people who ate caribou, salmon and seals, and lived in mamateeks, conical dwellings covered by birch bark. Most historical accounts depict them as independent, self-sufficient people who typically avoided contact with Europeans.
Around 1000 AD, the Beothuk came in contact with the Norse explorers who settled on the shores of northern Newfoundland. Some of the encounters with the European Vikings were friendly, but others were violent. The Vikings called them “Skraeling,” meaning barbarian or foreigner, referring to Beothuk dressed in animal skins.
Later on, the Beothuk were called “Red Indians” because they used red ochre to cover their bodies, clothes, canoes and weapons. Red ochre was also used on an infant to mark the child’s tribal identity and initiation into the world.
By 1497, when John Cabot, a European, came into contact with the Beothuk, historians estimate there were about 700 to 1000 Beothuk members. Their eventual demise was recorded by historians: as Europeans encroached on their territory, the tribe retreated inland, losing access to their fishing grounds and finding themselves competing for the same resources as the European settlers and other tribes, such as the Mi’kmaqs and Inuit. This resulted in undernourishment and starvation. Members also succumbed to diseases, such as smallpox and tuberculosis.
Ingeborg Marshall, author of A History and Ethnography of the Beothuk, in a talk given to the Newfoundland Historical Society in 1996, cited the dire situation a year before Shanawdithit died. “Shanawdithit related to [William Epps Cormack, founder of the Beothuk Institution] how her tribe had dwindled from 72 members in 1811 to only 12 or 13 at the time she was captured. She had little hope that they would survive since they were too few to keep up the caribou-fences; and being driven from the shore, their means of existence were completely cut off.”
Shanawdithit’s death in 1829 marked the end of the Beothuk people as a “distinct cultural entity,” according to Heritage Newfoundland & Labrador, a website that provides authoritative information about the province’s history. However, it adds, “oral evidence indicates that some survivors were still living on the island, in Labrador, and elsewhere in North America.”
Marshall said in her book that it was quite possible Mik’maq married Beothuk survivors but kept it a secret, particularly from the English settlers. She said that Santu Toney, born around 1837, was born from a Mi’kmaq mother and a Beothuk father.
Fast-forward to today. Reynolds Boyce, in her 50s, traces her Beothuk origins from her forefathers. She claims her great grandfather James Compagnon Prosper and brother, William Prosper, who she calls Uncle Soolian, were full-blooded Beothuk. Their father and mother were also Beothuk.
“[Uncle Soolian] escaped with his brother and father during the genocide. They hid their identities in Turtle Grove Dartmouth, Nova Scotia and pretended to be Mi’kmaqs,” Reynolds Boyce told ICMN. “ My uncle was a self-proclaimed Mi’kmaq chief. He pretended to be a Mi’kmaq chief to hide his Beothuk identity.”
William Prosper, according to his obituary at the Nova Scotia Museum, died at the Truro Indian Reservation in Nova Scotia in 1923, at the age of 101. Prosper was born in the Bay of Islands, in Newfoundland, in 1822. Around 1848, he moved to Nova Scotia’s Whycocomagh, Cape Breton Island. He lived in Dartmouth in the first decade of the 20th century and also lived in Halifax.
Reynolds Boyce claimed her uncle taught Beothuk medicine to his best friend, Mi’kmaq Jeremiah Lonecloud from Maine. “Jeremiah Lonecloud always claimed my uncle as his best friend. I have family in Newfoundland and in Maine and New Hampshire and in the southern states, all Beothuks,” she said.
“He [Uncle Soolian] practiced the Beothuk traditions/culture of his old Beothuk tribe in Newfoundland. Now, that’s the real truth. He was a beautiful man,” she said.
In October 2016, Reynolds Boyce hired Toronto-based Viaguard/Accu-Metrics to test her DNA and that of her mother and brother to prove their Beothuk ethnicity. She later made public that the company test confirmed they are of Beothuk origin, but geneticists are skeptical.
“The problem is that we do not have good Beothuk samples, despite best efforts to date, and in my opinion we are unlikely to get more,” Dr. Steve Carr, a biology professor at Memorial University who specializes in genetics and evolution and who co-wrote a 2011 paper on Beothuk DNA, told ICMN.
Viaguard/Accu-Metrics, in the Canadian newspaper The Telegram, said it links a customer’s DNA with DNA from a proven member of a specific First Nation. The company said that for the Reynolds Boyce test it used genetic information from a 2007 published study in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology as basis for its findings.
The 2007 study, which examined mitochondrial DNA taken from the remains of Nonosobasut and his wife, Desmaduit, uncle and aunt of Shanawdithit, showed genetic matches between the Beothuk couple and living Mi’kmaqs. Viaguard/Accu-Metrics said Reynolds Boyce’s DNA was a match to the genetic information in the 2007 study.
But Carr said that his laboratory disputes the 2007 study and concluded that there is no close relationship between the living Mi’kmaqs and Beothuk. “Absent good reference material, it is impossible to make a definite identification, and even what appears to be a perfect match proves little or nothing if the DNA [sequences] is too short.”
“I would say Carr is biased and he never had his facts straight,” said Reynolds Boyce, claiming that the DNA extracted from the teeth of Nonosobasut and Desmaduit, which she said was used as reference by Viaguard/Accu-Metrics, proves she is Beothuk.
“Even if I would never have gotten a DNA test, I have the documentation to back up my Beothuk family,” she added.
Regardless of what historians and the scientific community believes, Reynolds Boyce has started to assert her authority as chief of the Beothuk First Nation. She said the tribe is recognized in the Province of Newfoundland and Labrador and will seek federal recognition.
Reynolds Boyce said as a Beothuk descendant she has earned the right to claim Beothuk artifacts. Last last year, she contacted Chief Mi’sel Joe of Mi’kmaq Nation of Conne River and asked him to stop his request to repatriate the remains of Nonosabasut and Demasduit from Scotland. The remains were taken from the gravesite in Newfoundland in 1828.
Joe said he was not stopping his efforts. “The remains do not belong to any individual. It belongs to this country. It is the right thing to do.” CBC News reported in August 2016 that the Canadian government has made a formal request to the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh for the repatriation.
“I would love it if her claim is true and if the Beothuk people are not gone,” he said. “I am in no position to make any judgment on her bloodline. It is not up to me. You have to get proof from the government of the land. You need federal recognition, provincial recognition.
“Our tribe needs to be able to repatriate or own; it is part of our healing. Other tribes need to stop stealing from other tribes. It is time for Beothuk First Nation to be heard and we need protection,” Reynolds Boyce said talking of conspiracy against her tribe.
“We are not looking for land, money or anything. Just the truth,” Joe said, brushing aside claims of a conspiracy. “We are already recognized. It is not going to change anything. We stand on our credibility in our country.” He added: “It is not an Indian issue. It is not an aboriginal issue. It is a people’s issue of this country.”
In January, Reynolds Boyce wrote Massachusetts-based Robert S. Peabody Museum of Archeology seeking for the remains of the red paint people or the Red Ochre/Beothuk. She said the museum told her that the Wabanaki Confederacy (Mi’kmaq and Abenaki) who earlier made the claim was already granted the human remains and artifacts.
“We are in 2017. I hope that I could say that things have changed, but not everyone thinks that way and that is an encouragement to continue to stand for my people,” Reynolds Boyce said.