AN ATTEMPT is to be made to persuade the Scottish Government and the National Museums Scotland to allow the repatriation of the remains of two of the last members of a lost tribe of native Canadians.

Chief Nonosbawsut and his wife Demasduit – also known as Mary March – died in Newfoundland in the early 19th century. Their remains have been stored at the National Museum of Scotland for many years and are thought to have once been on public display as “final examples” of the Beothuk tribe – their niece, Shanawdithit, was the last known Beothuk and died in 1829.

Chief Mi’sel Joe, chief of the Miawpukek First Nation band which had links to the Beothuk, recently came to Edinburgh to discuss the case for repatriation with museum officials. While in Scotland, he was able to perform the ancient purification ritual, known as the Sweet Grass Ceremony, over the couple’s remains.

The story of how the chief was killed by colonists while defending his wife and baby son became well known after the colonists’ leader John Peyton was accused of the chief’s murder in 1818.

Peyton was cleared of the charge and though she lost her son, Demasduit went to live with a Church of England priest and his family where she gained her Christian identity Mary March. Even though the people of Newfoundland raised money for her to go home, Demasduit died of tuberculosis in 1820 and was buried with her husband.It is unclear exactly how the couple’s remains came to end up in Edinburgh but there is now determination in Canada that they should be brought home. Speaking on CBC radio yesterday, Chief Mi’sel Joe, who is chief of the reserve at Conne River in southern Newfoundland, said: “There’s no-one around to speak for the Beothuk people at this time and someone has to start the process of getting them home.

“They were stolen, they were taken, they were grave-robbing if you want to call it that, and it’s long overdue that they come back to where they belong.”He found the Sweet Grass Ceremony emotional: “I don’t know if any ceremony has ever been performed over them. I think they were just taken from a grave site and taken out for study. 

“I wasn’t allowed to be in the room by myself. It was quite emotional for me to finally be in the same room after all those years of hearing abut the remains.“It was like visiting the remains of my own people — well, they are my own people — just like visiting remains of people who have passed on into the spirit world.”The chief wondered in jest how the people of Scotland would react if someone had taken a certain famous Scotsman’s bones: “Maybe what I need to do is go and dig up [Robert] Burns, maybe that’ll open somebody’s eyes.”  Chief Mi’sel Joe admitted returning the remains to the original burial site in South Newfoundland is improbable, and has already been told they would likely be stored in one of Canada’s national museums.

Meanwhile, he is seeking support for the repatriation: “I don’t think it’s going to happen overnight. We’re now starting to put together some information for the federal government. I do have support from the Assembly of First Nations and from the all-chiefs assembly in Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island and Quebec. I have a support letter from the Innu, I have support letters from the caribou band on the west coast.”The repatriation of human remains is governed by international protocols to which both Canada and Scotland are signatories. It is expected that the Federal Government in Ottawa will formally approach the Scottish Government to seek the return of the remains of Demasduit and Nonosbawsut. A spokesman for National Museums Scotland last night confirmed Chief Mi’sel Joe’s account of his visit and added: “We can really only take a considered view at such times as that process has been followed through and an official approach of that sort is received.”