Indigenous groups in Canada call for National Museum of Scotland to return human remains

Indigenous leaders want Beothuk tribal remains stored in Edinburgh brought home 

THE REMAINS of two tribal figures stored in an Edinburgh museum should be returned to their ancestral homeland, according to Indigenous leaders in Canada calling for government intervention. 

Chief Nonosbawsut and his wife Demasduit died in Newfoundland in the early 19th century, at a time when the Beothuk tribe was being wiped out by colonial expansion. 

Scots-Canadian William Cormack took the skull and other goods from the grave of Nonosbawsut - who had been shot dead by British officers in 1819 when asking for the release of his captured partner Demasduit - and sent them to Edinburgh.

Demasduit, captured by British troops and renamed ‘Mary March’, died in 1820 - and her remains were also later taken to Edinburgh.

“They were stolen from Newfoundland. They belong to us and they should be brought back,” Mi'sel Joe, Miawpukek First Nation

The legacy of colonial crimes against the now wiped out Beothuk people and many other Indigenous groups makes the seizure of the historic remains particularly painful.

All Indigenous groups in Newfoundland and Labrador, Canada, have signed a letter requesting the return of the remains.

“They were stolen from Newfoundland. They belong to us and they should be brought back,” said Mi'sel Joe of the Miawpukek First Nation, who started the campaign for the return of the remains. Premier Dwight Ball of Newfoundland wrote to the National Museum of Scotland requesting a return of the remains in 2016 - but saw the attempt rejected based, according to the museum, on Scottish legislation. 

According to CBC in Canada, part of the issue was with identifying "a community descended from the original owners” to make a valid application. However, with the Beothuk people wiped out this is not possible.

Support for a new request now has the support of the Assembly of First Nations and from the all-chiefs assembly in Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island and Quebec. A further formal request is expected to be made to the national museum. 

The museum has said it will take a “considered view” if an approach is made.

Picture courtesy of Gordon Ednie

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