Early Life and Capture
Demasduwit (also spelled Demasduit) was one of the last of the Beothuk , an Indigenous people who once lived on what is now Newfoundland. An expedition sent to Red Indian Lake in March 1819 to recover stolen articles and establish friendly contact with the dwindling Beothuk people captured Demasduwit and killed her husband, Nonosbawsut, a Beothuk chief.
Demasduwit was taken to Twillingate and put in the care of Anglican missionary John Leigh, who recorded from her a Beothuk vocabulary. (See also Indigenous Languages in Canada). She was later brought to St John's and an unsuccessful effort made to return her to her own people.
DID YOU KNOW?Demasduwit’s niece, Shawnadithit, is considered the last Beothuk. She died in 1829.
Death and Legacy
Like many of her people, Demasduwit succumbed to pulmonary consumption (See tuberculosis) and her body was returned to Red Indian Lake in February 1820 by a party led by British naval officer David Buchan. In 1827, Scottish explorer and naturalist William E. Cormack saw her body, placed side by side with that of Nonosbawsut, in an elevated sepulchre erected by the last survivors of her people. Cormack took the skulls of Demasduwit and Nonosbawsut, as well as what were likely related burial items, and sent them to Edinburgh, Scotland, where they were eventually housed at the National Museum of Scotland.
Demasduwit’s Remains To Be Repatriated to Newfoundland
In 2015, Chief Mi’sel Joe of the Miawpukek First Nation at Conne River (Newfoundland and Labrador) began a process to repatriate the remains of Demasduwit and her husband, Chief Nonosbawsut. Joe travelled to Scotland to view the remains and performed a sweetgrass ceremony for the Beothuk people, a spiritual purification ritual meant to wash away negative thoughts and feelings. In February 2016, Newfoundland and Labrador premier Dwight Ball officially wrote National Museums Scotland to ask them to return the Beothuk remains to Canada, followed by a similar request in November 2017 from the federal minister of Canadian Heritage, Mélanie Joly. In January 2019, Gordon Rintoul, director of National Museums Scotland, announced that an agreement was reached with Canadian authorities to have the remains returned to Canada: “We are pleased to have reached this agreement and to be able to transfer the remains of these two Beothuk people to the country where they lived and were buried.”
Chief Mi’sel Joe believes that the repatriation of Demasduwit and Nonosbawsut’s remains could help to lessen Newfoundland’s “dark history” — in the past, Newfoundland’s school curricula blamed the extinction of the Beothuk on the Mi’kmaq peoples — and therefore lead to a chapter of reconciliation for the Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples of Newfoundland and Labrador: “It’s been 200 years since they were taken from Newfoundland, stolen from the gravesite. It’s incredibly important to have this part of our history in Newfoundland finally coming together. And it’s something that belongs to all of us, not just Aboriginal people…. Every Newfoundlander should be extremely proud of this moment."