How a race of people disappeared was a story Morgan MacDonald felt compelled to tell.
The sculptor, known for many great pieces of art, was enthralled by the history of the Beothuk and their path to extinction nearly 200 years ago.
The stories of these people were tragically lost and, had it not been for Shanawdithit, the last of the Beothuks and an explorer with humanitarian interests, we may never have known the final chapter of this race.
Even MacDonald didn’t know the story until he read an article about Mi’sel Joe, the traditional and administrative chief of Newfoundland’s Conne River Mi’kmaq Reserve and his quest to have the skulls of Nonosabasut and a second Beothuk — Demasduit — repatriated to this province from a museum in Scotland.
“The British have trespassed in this country and have become a blight and a scourge to a portion of the human race; under their power a defenceless and once independent proud tribe of men have been extirpated from the face of the Earth.”
William Epps Cormack
“As a Newfoundlander, we know the story of Shanawdithit, the last Beothuk, but the only reason we know this story is because of her,’’ MacDonald said from his foundry in Logy Bay where he is working on three bronze sculptures of Shanawdithit, her aunt Demasduwit and Nonosbawsut, her husband and the leader of the group who was killed while attempting to prevent her capture.
The remains of Demasduit and Nonosabusut have been stored at the Edinburgh museum for years.
“After doing some research, I learned about the murder at Red Indian Lake, a nearly 200-year-old murder case carried out by John Peyton and John Peyton Jr. It was her (Shanawdithit) account of the event that let us know what happened there,’’ he added.
He said it was clear in her retelling of the story to explorer and humanitarian William Epps Cormack the hostility that was encountered by the Beothuk and what happened during the incident where Nonosabusut was killed. Cormack was the man who brought Shawnadithit to St. John’s under the auspices of the Beothuk Institution.
Her drawing showed Nonosabusut lying dead in the snow at Red Indian Lake.
“This is part of the fabric of this province and my goal is to give a face, an identity to an important historical event,’’ MacDonald said.
“I want to bring awareness to this and perhaps to help Mi’sel Joe with his goal of bringing the remains home,’’ he added.
MacDonald said the story is compelling and he hopes the province will choose to adopt the documentary “Stealing Mary (The Last of the Red Indians)”, which is available on YouTube, to be shown to all students.
The story of the Beothuk is one of the saddest chapters in Canadian history, made personal and melancholy by the story of Shanawdithit herself.
Most of her extended family had died from starvation, illness, exposure and British attacks. Sick and hungry, Shanawdithit, her mother and sister sought help from nearby trapper William Cull and the three women were taken to St. John’s, where Shanawdithit’s mother and sister died of tuberculosis.
She lived for a while in obscurity as a domestic at Exploits where she was given the name Mary. Though she was clearly intelligent, there was no attempt to encourage her to speak of her experiences. There was a growing concern at that time that all knowledge of the Beothuk would be lost.
To ensure this didn’t happen, Cormack brought Shawnadithit to St. John’s where she learned English and showed a gift for drawing. Her maps, drawings and stories are the last records of the language and customs of her doomed people.
When Cormack left Newfoundland, Shanawdithit gave him a lock of her hair and two stones from Red Indian Lake, symbols of all that remained of the great territory in which the Beothuk once prospered as a symbol of gratitude for the kindness he showed her.
She died shortly after, on June 6, 1829, of tuberculosis, “the cough demon that had victimized so many of her people.”
In recounting the history of the Beothuk, Cormack wrote, “the British have trespassed in this country and have become a blight and a scourge to a portion of the human race; under their power a defenceless and once independent proud tribe of men have been extirpated from the face of the earth.”
MacDonald decided to create the three statues, a non-commissioned project, to help preserve the story. He said he was not saying there are not any indigenous art or sculptures that have been completed in the province, but he felt it should be given more thought.
“I know there has been some animosity expressed over (the Portuguese explorer Gaspar) Corte Real sculpture on Confederation Drive as he is a figure who historically is directly responsible for enslaving a number of Beothuk peoples. In this context and the current climate in the entire country, my thoughts are that it is more important to have the indigenous side of the story front and centre in a dignified way as it has not been done yet,’’ MacDonald said.
“I haven’t been in contact with Mi’sel Joe about what I am doing and he’s probably not aware of this work, but I am hopeful of getting his reaction and feedback on the pieces. My hopes are that this may be something that will help give a presence and identity to these important lost figures and help accomplish what Mi’sel Joe is setting out to do,’’ he said.
“We have so many bronzes of past figures, political heads of state in their respective seats of government etc., yet there is a great wealth of stories and creative subjects that have not been explored in this medium with respect to indigenous culture to any great extent,’’ he said.