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Calls made to repatriate Beothuk remains

06/23/2012 01:09 EDT | Updated 08/23/2012 05:12 EDT
Aboriginal groups want bones of the extinct Beothuk people to be removed from museum vaults and brought back to Newfoundland.

A woman named Shanawdithit was the last known member of her people, with her 1829 death in St. John's marking the end of the Beothuk. Disease, persecution and the Beothuk's decision to withdraw from coastal communities have been cited as causes of wiping out the Beothuk.

The location of Shanawdithit's grave is not known, but the skulls of her aunt and uncle — a chief — languish in a museum in Edinburgh, Scotland.

The remains of at least 22 Beothuk are held in Canadian museum vaults.

"They're sacred," said Jenelle Duval, a Mi'kmaq who took part in a ceremony this week in St. John's.

They were given to the land, and that's where they should stay. Yes, they should be returned. Absolutely."

For decades, the skeletons of a 6'6" Beothuk man and a child had been on full display at the Newfoundland Museum in St. John's. The remains, though, have long been packed away, as well as others.

Researchers have done some DNA and isotope testing, to confirm genetic connections to contemporary aboriginal people. Funding for that research, though, ran out a couple of years ago, and the project is at a standstill.

Misel Joe, chief of the Mi'kmaq reserve at Conne River in southern Newfoundland, not far from a former Beothuk excavation site, wants researchers to continue with their work, so that the remains can eventually be returned.

"Study is study, and I understand that," Joe said.

"But after all this time, enough is enough. It's already been done in other parts of Canada."

The Canadian Museum of Civilization has the remains of at least 10 Beothuk, although archaeology director David Morrison says repatriation is complicated because there are no known descendants of the Beothuk.

"We just don't have the resources to be proactive on repatriation. We have to respond to requests as they come to us," Morrison said.

Joe said that while the repatriation issue is important to the aboriginal community, it should have meaning for everyone.

"It's the respectful and right thing to do, for anyone," he said.

"And it shouldn't hinge on whether there's Beothuk people or not. It's just the right thing to do."

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