Monday, October 25, 2010

The Last Of The Beothuk

Her name was Shanawdithit. She was most likely, as the post says, The Last Of The Beothuk. That is also the title of a book by Barbara Whitby, which I have just finished reading.

Years ago, many years ago, I took a journey by motorcycle to L'anse Aux Meadows. That, if you don't know, is the site of a Viking settlement in northwest Newfoundland. I was in a hurry to get there, and in a hurry to get back, but in between there and Port Aux Basque there was a museum to the Beothuk, with many artifacts. I think, while I was there, I was the only one there 'from away'. I spent a long time, wondering who these people were, what happened to them, and why.

The Last Of The Beothuk, as a book, is a narrative account. There is a good list of 'Further Reading', and a good bibliography, though the text is devoid of explicit references. This, sadly, sets it somewhat apart from Farley Mowat's Westviking, which was the inspiration for my journey. Farley was meticulous in his citations, and unsparring in his criticisms of 'current' academics. Both aspects of that work attracted my interest and respect.

Barbara's book contains neither of these attributes, sadly. But, it has something else, which Farley's book lacks. Barbara has a level of empathy with the topic that is difficult to put into words. She discusses the situation compassionately from both sides, without taking either side. One gets the sense that she empathizes equally with the settlers and the Beothuk.

And, to be fair, atrocities were committed on both sides. It is a good study in what can happen when two loosely affiliated 'confederacies' interact and compete for the same resources. The Beothuk were traditionally a coastal people. Confronted with the presence of a diverse seafaring people, they retreated inland....declined, and were annihilated. Or, as Castor and Pollux would say, they were driven into the Nile.... ;)

And yes, that is me, resorting to my inner defense....humor.....and yes, it is very black humor. We now have a word for what happened in Newfoundland. It is not a pretty word. The word is genocide. In some ways, it lacked the organized, methodical, and diligent efforts shown by the Germans, and others when it came to the eradication of the Jews, but the intent was the same. Alas, these early settlers in Newfoundland were much more successful than the Germans ever were. But we can not escape the fact that it was practiced by a largely English speaking population.

On the whole, I would strongly recommend The Last of the Beothuk to anyone who was interested in the early history of North America. I, for one, seriously doubt that the other tribes were ignorant of what happened there, and I would bet the events in Newfoundland shaped the response in the rest of North America. The Pilgrams didn't land until 1622, an eternity after first contact in Newfoundland.

What haunts me the most is the fact, and I view it as a fact, that in the circumstances and reality of what was, there is no other outcome that could have happened. I would've liked to have seen more coverage of 'Jackatars', as per the Farfarers, by Mowat.......were they descendant's of European and Micmac origin, or European and Beothuk? Given the Beothuk's expressed antipathy to outsiders, I suspect the former, but my romantic side would sing at the knowledge that some remnant of the Beothuk live with us today. I, personally, suspect there might be a slight echo....but I doubt there is much, if anything, of them that remains today.

Mowat talked in The Farfarers about genetic testing. I'd like to see, and have not yet seen, the results - maybe I haven't looked in the right places. We must have contemporary Beothuk bones that could be sequenced.

In short, as all good research should, Barbara's book raises more questions than it answers. And, as I've recently re-discovered, Picasso was right, when he purportedly said 'Computers are useless, because they only give us answers'......on a profundity scale that pales compared to the other things he's said.... :)

"Some painters transform the sun into a yellow spot, others transform a yellow spot into the sun."

"Success is dangerous. One begins to copy oneself, and to copy oneself is more dangerous than to copy others. It leads to sterility."

"Why do two colors, put one next to the other, sing? Can one really explain this? no. Just as one can never learn how to paint."

One can, I think, learn to be a better artist. But one can not, I think, ever learn how be an artist. One is, or one is not.

Barbara Whitby is an artist. She transports you to another time, and compels you to see things from both sides of a very great divide. Whether or not her narrative is 'accurate' it is 'authentic'. And above all, it is 'empathetic'.

Can we ask for more? Perhaps some can, but....haunting, alluring, frightening, and most of all, true to the subject....This book paints a picture, using words, that would rival David...and yeah, I've seen the original David, and several 'incomplete' sculptures. The latter are, I think, like this book, more haunting......

It would be easy to paint Europeans as the 'bad guys' in this narrative, but Barbara doesn't do that. Nor does she sugar coat their actions. Instead, she acknowledges that such things have always happened when two different groups of hominids have competed for resources.

Why do we treat each other, historically, so poorly? Because, we all recognize that the most dangerous predator on this little blue ball walks on two legs. We are now in a position where we do not share this planet with another hominid species. But that has not always been true, and our sense of the 'other' has been shaped by our evolution as a species. We 'pre-judge' because there was a time in our evolution when that was very much to our advantage. We 'stereotype' as a short-hand way of identifying 'the other', because, likewise, there was a time when that was to our advantage. We have these things wired deeply within us. Neither is inherently wrong, but it is wrong to solely rely on them.

In the story of the Beothuk we can see what happens when two civilizations collide. In a word, only one result can be reasonably expected....and that is chaos. On both sides.

The Beothuk had, by this account, a long oral tradition. One that remembered 'men who skimmed the sea'....most likely the Vikings. The Viking sagas speak of 'skraelings' who were quite hostile. If one realizes that the Micmac made repeated incursions into Newfoundland, it is easy to see the source of the Beothuk's hostility to outsiders.

I would've liked to have seen more treatment of disease in the role of colonization discussed in The Last Of The Beothuk. To what degree was tuberculosis endemic? Did it exist before European contact? Shanawdithit died of it at the presumed age of 29, which would suggest she and her people contracted it from outside their community and had no immunity against it.

Nathaniel Philbrick's book, Mayflower, evocatively describes the early days of the Plymouth colony. There is a monument in Leiden, Netherlands, to a John Robinson. He is my ancestor. His son eventually reached Plymouth. That may account for my sense of belonging on the eastern seaboard of north america. But then, there are rumors of native american influences, and genetic tests have suggested a strong tie to West Africa, so who knows? :) I don't. I just know that anywhere on this coast feels like home.


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