American Indian Culture: Introduction To The Beothuck Nation

The Beothuck Indians lived on the island of Newfoundland for hundreds of years. A guide to their culture and traditions.

The Beothuck Indians lived on the island of Newfoundland for hundreds of years. They were tall, strong people with dark eyes. Their black hair was partially braided at the back of their head and decorated with feathers. They dressed in animal hides and hunted with bows and arrows. They covered their clothes, weapons, and bodies with a mixture of red ochre and oil. This protected them from insects in summer and the cold in winter. The Beothuck believed the ochre had life-giving power.

The Beothuck were not the first Natives to inhabit Newfoundland. No one knows when these people came to the island. It is believed that in the beginning they moved between Newfoundland and Labrador by crossing the Strait of Belle Isle.

By 200AD, the Beothuck had established themselves in Newfoundland and no longer moved off the island. Though they were part of the Algonquin family of tribes, they developed their own culture and traditions.

Newfoundland was abundant in wild game and fish. It was suited to support the Beothuck, as they were hunters. Caribou gazed on the lichen of the barrens while wolf, bear, lynx, beaver, and other small mammals lived in the forests that stretched from one coast of Newfoundland to the other.

Hundreds of inland streams and ponds teemed with salmon and trout. Seabirds were plentiful and in spring, seals and whales could be found close to shore. The ocean provided a large variety of fish and other seafood.

Newfoundland summers are warm but very short. The winters are long and cold. Harsh winds blow inland from the sea. The Beothuck knew how to adapt to the extreme weather conditions of the island.

In 1610, John Guy founded the first recorded settlement on the island. He became friendly with the Beothuck and began to trade with them. He wanted animal furs and gave the Beothuck clothes, tools, scissors, and needles in exchange. He indicated to the Natives by sign language that they should return the following year, which they did. Another ship arrived and the captain, seeing so many Natives assembled, believed they were hostile. He ordered the ship's cannon to be fired into the crowd. This ended peaceful trade with the Beothuck.

In the 1700's, white settlers began to inhabit the island. They built villages in sheltered bays and inlets that were the summer homes of the Beothuck. This forced the Indians to move to remote regions of the island.

More settlers came to the island and populated the coastal areas. The Indians were no longer able to live on the shores. They were unable to collect food during the summer and they had no surplus for the harsh winters. The Beothuck began to starve. Tuberculosis was brought to the island by the whites and many of the Indians died.

The Beothuck frightened the settlers. This led some of them to hunt down and kill the Natives. They destroyed their wigwams and canoes and committed acts of cruelty against Indian men, women and children. These horrific experiences forced the Beothuck to hide in remote areas and try to maintain their way of life.

It is believed that at one time more than a thousand Beothuck inhabited the island of Newfoundland. When the colonial government sent Captain John Cartwright to the island in 1778 to find and befriend them, the Beothuck were not to be found.

In 1810, Captain David Buchanan and his men made contact with the Indians. Because of past experience, the Beothuck became frightened and killed two of his men before they fled.

There is little known of the Beothuck. Early settlers and two Beothuck women who were captured in the early 1800's provided the only information we have. Demasduit was taken prisoner in 1819. She was intelligent and gentle. She quickly learned English. She provided a list of words and their meanings. This helped to relate the Beothuck language to that of the Algonquin tribes. While she was in St. John's, a portrait was made. It is the only picture of a Beothuck Indian in existence.

The people of Newfoundland had planned to befriend Demasduit in order to learn more about the Beothuck. They also wanted her to go back to her people and tell them that her captors had been friendly. Unfortunately, before she rejoined her people, she contacted tuberculosis and died. Her coffin was carried back to her people.

In 1923, a Beothuck girl of twenty years was captured. Shanawdithit lived with a family of settlers for five years. She was gentle and had a natural talent for drawing. She would not return to her people because she was afraid they would not forgive her for having lived with white people.

In 1827, W.E. Cormack realized Shanawdithit was probably the last surviving Beothuck. He took her with him to St. John's where she drew pictures that depicted earlier encounters between the Indians and whites.

Shanawdithit died in 1829 from tuberculosis. The People of the Red Ochre became extinct with her passing.

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