It is Miawpukek First Nation Chief Mi’sel Joe’s wish that “when” the remains of two Beothuk people – one a chief – are returned by the National Museums Scotland that he travel with them back to Canada.
Recently, that wish got a boost when the Canadian government got involved.
“To have the federal government come onside, I think that’s an incredible giant step in making sure that this does happen,” said Joe.
Heritage Minister Melanie Joly has sent a formal request to Dr. Gordon Rintoul, director of National Museums Scotland, asking that the remains of Demasduit, and her husband Chief Nonosabasut, be returned to Newfoundland and Labrador.
Demasduit and Nonosabasut, along with associated funeral objects, were removed by explorer William Cormack during his 1828 visit to the burial site.
Joly’s letter is only the latest support Joe has received in his efforts to repatriate the remains. In June 2015, a letter requesting repatriation came from provincial Aboriginal Affairs Minister Keith Russell. That same month, Bonavista-Gander-Grand Falls – Windsor MP Scott Simms tabled a private member’s motion in the House of Commons calling on the government to seek repatriation.
In April 2016, a private member’s motion was made in the Newfoundland-Labrador House of Assembly by member Tracey Perry (District of Fortune Bay-Cape La Hune) calling for repatriation of the remains “so that they may be laid to rest with dignity.”
Support has also come from the Assembly of First Nations, Atlantic Policy Congress and Innu Nation.
It’s been a years-long battle for Joe, who first flew to Edinburgh three years ago and wasn’t even able to see the remains.
“I didn’t have a really good reception the first time around,” he said. But before leaving he laid the groundwork for his next trip.
A year later, Joe returned and was able to perform a sweetgrass ceremony over the remains. While Joe requested privacy, he was told it was against museum policy. However, the majority of museum personnel left and Joe was able to perform the ceremony with only the curator present.
For Joe, the ultimate goal is to have the remains returned to Newfoundland. Realistically, he expects the remains will first go to the National Museum in Ottawa.
“At least they’re on Canadian soil. And from that, moving them to Newfoundland,” he said.
Joe says a good stepping-stone would be to store the remains at the university in St. John’s, where there are other remains. Ultimately though, he would like to see Demasduit and Nonosabasut returned to the ground.
“We could create a site somewhere in Newfoundland that’s secure and have those remains up on that site,” said Joe.
With Demasduit and Nonosabasut’s remains that much closer to coming home, it doesn’t mean Joe is ready to rest.
In fact, he has his eyes set on a birchbark canoe that was made in Conne River for the government of France in the mid-1800s and is presently in Vienna.
“The next one I want to tackle is that one there,” he said.
Mi’kmaq artifacts in the Smithsonian Museum in Washington are also on Joe’s radar.
“When the politics settle down in the States I may be able to go down and take a better look,” he said.