The Aboriginal People of Newfoundland


The Beothuk people of Newfoundland were not the very first
inhabitants of the island. Thousands of years before their
arrival there existed an ancient race, named the Maritime
Archaic Indians who lived on the shores of Newfoundland.
(Red Ochre Indians, Marshall, 4.) Burial plots and polished
stone tools are occasionally discovered near Beothuk
remains. Some people speculate that, because of the
proximity of the artifacts to the former lands of the
Beothuk, the Maritime Archaic Indians and the Beothuk may
have been related. It is not certain when the Beothuk
arrived on the island. In fact little is actually known
about the people, compared to what is known about other
amerindian civilisations, only artifacts and stories told
by elders tell the historians who these people really were.
Some speculate that they travelled from "Labrador to
Newfoundland across the strait of Belle Isle, which at one
time was only 12 miles wide. By about 200 AD the Beothuk
Indians were probably well settled into Newfoundland."(Red
Ochre, 8)
The Beothuk were not alone on Newfoundland wither. The
Dorset Eskimos, who came from Cape Dorset regions of the
north around 500 BC also shared the island. They presumably
had contact with the Beothuk, exchanging tools or engaging
in battle. In any case the Dorset Indians died out leaving
Newfoundland empty to the control of the Beothuk people who
now had no enemies and a wide vast territory. The Beothuk,
although part of the Algonkian family developed their own
language and culture. The 400 words that are still known
from their language prove their Algonkian heritage. The
development of their culture was a great success. The
success of the Beothuk people as a whole was in part
because of their skills in fishing, hunting and travel.
They were the "only amerindian group to navigate on the
high seas."(Grabowski lecture Oct 4,`96.) This was because
of the construction of their canoes. Normally paddling on
the high seas is dangerous, but Beothuk canoes were so
designed to with stand high waves and stay accurately on
course. The canoes "were made of a frame work of spruce and
then covered with birch bark."(Red Ochre, 9) They curved
high at the sides and a sharp bottom acted as a keel. The
high sides protected as a barrier from wave swamping the
boat. Because of hunting expeditions on the Funk islands,
60 kilometres from shore, ocean travel was evident and sea
worthiness was essential. The knowledge of these canoes is
only from documents produced by explorers and early
settlers, all that is left of the original canoes are
models of canoes found in burial sites. "The Beothuk were a
migratory people..."(Red Ochre, 14) they moved with the
seasons and with the hunt. In fall they hunted caribou
inland, in spring seals on the coast, the summer months
seafood and birds eggs were harvested. The fall hunt was
the most important, as it would determine their success in
surviving the winter months. The Beothuk followed the
patterns of migration of the caribou and laid out large
traps of fallen trees along the river banks. Trees would be
left leaning against their stumps creating a triangle to
the ground. The trees would be piled one over the next and
so on and produced a "thicket that the caribou could not
penetrate or jump over."(Red Ochre, 15.) Trapping the
caribou in the water was the objective as " the animals
could not move quickly in the water."(Red Ochre,15.) Indian
people of North America have been called "red skins" for
many years. This expression comes from the european
settlers who arrived in Newfoundland and were met by the
Beothuk. The Beothuk covered their entire bodies, clothing,
and weapons with a "mixture of red ochre and oil."(Red
Ochre, 4.)which protected them from the cold in winter and
the mosquitoes and other bugs in summer. Other Algonkian
tribes used it, although "not so lavishly as the
Newfoundland indians."(Extinction, Rowe, 117) Some evidence
shows that some juices were used "especially alder" to
paint their bodies. "Sanku, a Micmac woman allegedly of
part)Beothuk descent...(said that)... this painting of the
body was done annually at special ceremonies which included
the initiation of children born since the last ceremony.
These body markings related to tribal identity and had
religious significance."(Rowe, 118) Early European contact
with the Beothuk began possibly with the arrival of the
Vikings around 1000 AD. This can possibly be proven by the
colour of the Beothuk's skin. Their complexion was light
compared to that of the Micmac. Supposing that conflict
arose between the Vikings and the Beothuk, it would be
assumed that prisoners would be taken by the Beothuk. If
these "prisoners included women or children, it would be
unlikely that the Beothuk would put them to death."(Rowe,
118.) It is possible that assimilation of these prisoners
into the community may have taken place. This might
"explain why (John) Guy's observations showed that some of
the Beothuks he encountered had yellow hair."(Rowe, 120.)
In 1497, John Cabot arrived in Newfoundland and brought
back the news about a new undescovered area in the north.
Even before this, however, there was contact between the
Europeans and the Beothuk. Fishermen from England, Spain,
Portugal and Francehad been usign the land to set up
dry)fisheries. Because the fishermen were primarily there
only to fish, little documentation is available.After teh
announcement to Britain had been proclaimed more and more
fishermen arrived and began "using" the dry)fisheries
already in place of teh Beothuk. Innitially relations had
been friendly but as "using" turned into "stealing" the
Beothuk bacame increasinglyenraged adn occationally mounted
raids on European fishing camps. The fishermen accused the
raiding parties of theft and because there was little
missionary interest in the Beothuk, there was also little
"law and order" in teh areas where Beothuk and European
fishermen shared land. Desperatly, teh Beothuk fought back,
and more fights ensued over fisheries equipment, but any
"atttempt at disobedience (on the part of the Beothuk)
resulted in strict punishment."(Grabowski, Oct.4)
Grabowski, Jan. Lecture His 2401, October 4, 1996. Email
Howley, James Patrick. The Beothuks or Red Indians: The
Aboriginal Inhabitants of Newfoundland. University of
Cambridge Press., Cambridge, England. 

Marshall, Ingeborg. History and the Ethnography of the
BeothukMcGill)Queens University Press.: 1996, Canada.
Marshall, Ingeborg C.L.. 

Reports and Letters by George Christopher Pulling: Relating
to the Beothuk Indians of Newfoundland Breakwater Books.:
1989, St.John's, Newfoundland. 

Marshall, Ingeborg. The Red Ochre People: How
Newfoundland's Beothuk Indians Lived. J.J. Douglas Ltd.:
1977, Vancouver. 

Rowe, Frederick W.. EXTINCTION: The Beothuks of
Newfoundland McGraw)Hill Ryerson Limited.: 1977, Toronto. 


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