Tag Archives: Beothuk

My Indian by Mi’sel Joe and Sheila O’Neill

It is so agreeable to see the awareness of Indigenous issues being given the attention they deserve so that reconciliation can advance. More and more, elders and other members of the Indigenous community whose voices were silent for so long are now being encouraged to speak. Newfoundland and Labrador’s Breakwater Books is an independent, socially aware Atlantic Canadian publisher and they have just released a small, but important book authored by two members of that provinces’ Mi’kmaq community, Saquamaw Mi’sel Joe and Sheila O’Neill.

A #ReadAtlantic book!

My Indian is a collaborative effort to tell the history, from both an oral and recorded viewpoint, of Sylvester Joe the Mi’kmaq guide who was hired by William Epps Cormack to assist him in crossing the island of Newfoundland in 1822. In his writings, Cormack always referred to Sylvester as “my Indian”, hence the title of the book, which was used as a way to reclaim the narrative, taking back the title of “My Indian” and giving it back to the Mi’kmaq of Newfoundland, as the authors explain in the “Book Club Questions” portion of the book.

Cormack was crossing Newfoundland to look for evidence of the Beothuk people, who were very mistrustful of the white man (as well they should be) and Sylvester Joe is conflicted because he really doesn’t want to lead this man to them or their camps. However, after consulting with his Elders, he undertakes the journey always leading Cormack in the general direction of the Beothuk, but never close enough for actual contact. Throughout the journey, Cormack scoffs at traditional Mi’kmaq medicines and ways, until he falls quite ill and Joe nurses him back to health so that they can continue their arduous journey.

Interesting, too are the imagined conversations between the two, such as when Cormack asks Sylvester if he has a Bible:

I replied, "Yes, I do. We are walking on my Bible every day." There was no reply from him for several minutes.
Then Cormack asked, "What do you mean, we are walking on your Bible?"
"This land is Mother Earth. It provides nourishment to my body, my heart, and my spirit. It provides everything I need to survive on this land. It teaches me to be strong, it teaches me to be respectful, and it teaches me to be humble. This land is not mine or yours. It belongs to all the living creatures; it belongs to all of us. And we are all responsible for this land that we walk on. So you see, this is you see, this is my Bible," I explained to Cormack. "What does your Bible teach you?"
Cormack just looked at me for a long period of time and then said harshly, "We have a long way to go."

While not full of details from Cormack’s journal of the crossing, it tells the story sufficiently from an Indigenous perspective to understand what the mindset of Sylvester must have been as he is ordered around by Cormack and does the lion’s share of the chores while Cormack scribbles in his journal.

My Indian begs to have a special place in the public educational system curriculum. It is suitable reading for middle-grade readers on up. Aside from the book club questions, there is a glossary, black and white photographs and numbers in Mi’kmaq. Hopefully, My Indian will lead to more reinterpretations of the role of Indigenous people in colonial history from their perspective.


SAQAMAW MI’SEL JOE, LL. D, CM, is the author of Muinji’j Becomes a Man and An Aboriginal Chief’s Journey. He has been the District Traditional Chief of Miawpukek First Nation since 1983, appointed by the late Grand Chief Donald Marshall. Mi’sel Joe is considered the Spiritual Chief of the Mi’kmaq of Newfoundland and Labrador.

Sheila O’Neill, B.A., B.Ed., is from Kippens, NL, and is a member of Qalipu Mi’kmaq First Nation. Sheila is a Drum Carrier and carries many teachings passed down by respected Elders. As a founding member and past president of the Newfoundland Aboriginal Women’s Network (NAWN), she has been part of a grassroots movement of empowerment of Indigenous women within the island portion of Newfoundland and Labrador. She lives in St. John’s.

  • Publisher ‏ : ‎ Breakwater Books (April 30 2021)
  • Language ‏ : ‎ English
  • Paperback ‏ : ‎ 176 pages
  • ISBN-10 ‏ : ‎ 1550818783
  • ISBN-13 ‏ : ‎ 978-1550818789

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This article has been Digiproved © 2021 James FisherSome Rights Reserved  

A Roll of the Bones by Trudy J. Morgan-Cole

Newfoundland author Trudy J. Morgan-Cole’s newest book, A Roll of the Bones (2019, Breakwater Books) is a work of historical fiction based on the small colony established in 1610 by John Guy in Cupids, Newfoundland on Conception Bay which has the distinction of being the oldest continuously settled official British colony in Canada. While there is some historical documentation regarding the settlement, there doesn’t exist much information concerning the individuals that settled there for Ms. Morgan-Cole to build a story on, so she built a story around the actual characters and many (particularly the women) who are products of her imagination. She tells us in her Afterword: “There is ample room for imagination in this story because so much is unknown and there is space to weave a lot of fiction in between the accounts left behind by John Guy, Henry Crout, and others.”

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The book opens in Bristol, England with Kathryn Gale, and her maid Nancy Ellis who have been friends from birth, although of different stations in life. There is also a stonemason’s apprentice, Ned Perry, who has eyes for Kathryn although he knows she would never marry beneath her. Soon, Kathryn is married to Nicholas Guy, cousin of John Guy who wishes to establish a colony in the New Found Lande. Nicholas decides to throw in his lot with his cousin and they sail across the Atlantic with men, livestock and supplies to begin a settlement. The wives and other women will be sent for later, once the colony is established. Two years pass before John Guy returns to England to fetch the wives and other single women to take back to Cupids. Kathryn decides to go, and Nancy, from whom she has never been separated, deliberates but decides to go too if only to be with Kathryn in this fearsome place. Nancy’s Aunt Tib tells her:

“What if you don’t go with her? She will give you a good character, I suppose. Then you go to work in somebody else’s house, do what I’ve done all my life. Help some other woman keep her house and cook her meals and raise her brats. Mayhap amid all that you’ll find a husband of own, and then you’ll clean your own house, cook your own meals, raise your own brats.” She looked up from the plucked chicken. “Either way, ’twill be a hard life—what woman’s life is not?—but you’ll turn your hand to the task at hand. Like I’ve taught you to do.”

In Bristol, Nancy’s life course is set out for her just as Aunt Tib knows. But by taking advantage of this opportunity, she’ll break free of that cycle and perhaps have her own house and property in the new colony.

Since this is book one of a trilogy, the reader knows at the outset that the story doesn’t end on the last page. In between the time the wives and women land on terra firma, there is hard work ahead for all, regardless of what station they held in England. There are new skills to be learned, poor weather to be dealt with, pirates that raid along the coast, sickness, scurvy, childbirth, the timid Beothuks, and even a witch hunt! Ms. Morgan-Cole is a detail-oriented writer who clearly has all of her characters firmly fleshed out in her imagination, and the consummate skill she uses to have them interact in ways and means we might never have imagined will keep the reader entranced from the first word to the final full stop.

A Roll of the Bones is a flawless model of historical fiction. One can only hope that Book Two is soon to be on the horizon so we get to find out what additional adventures await our colonists. In a recent interview, Ms. Morgan-Cole stated: “I know in a general way what’s going to happen in Books Two and Three – I know where all the characters will end up – but I don’t know everything that’s going to happen along the way. I’m the kind of writer who figures a lot of it out during the process of writing.”

A five-star read, and I am putting it on the 2020 long list for “The Very Best!” Book Awards for Best Historical Fiction.

A Roll of the Bones by Trudy J. Morgan-Cole
Breakwater Books

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This article has been Digiproved © 2019 James FisherSome Rights Reserved  

The Last Beothuk by Gary Collins

Prior to The Last Beothuk (2017, Flanker Press), Mr Collins’ last book was Desperation: The Queen of Swansea (2016, Flanker Press), which won a “The Very Best!” Book Award in the Historical Fiction category for that year. At the time, I posited that Mr Collins was at the top of his storytelling game. One could only guess what his next subject might be! Well, we didn’t have to wait long, for we have the finished product from Flanker Press on the shelves now.

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Inspired by true events, The Last Beothuk is the fictionalized story of Kopituk (or Kop) an actual Beothuk hunter who appears to have outlived Shanawdithit, who is generally believed to be the last Beothuk and died in St. John’s in 1829. The Beothuk are the aboriginal people of the island of Newfoundland. They were hunter-gatherers who probably numbered less than a thousand people at the time of European contact, which is when The Last Beothuk begins.

“In our modern world of inclusion and acceptance of minorities, it is not easy to imagine that we could have been some of Kop’s Unwanted Ones.”

Gary Collins

Without giving away too much of the plot, The Last Beothuk follows the life and journeys of Kop, his young wife Tehonee and their small daughter Kuise. They are in search of their people, and all they can find are their abandoned dwellings and evidence of the “Unwanted Ones”, Europeans who fear the Beothuk (they call them red devils, since the Beothuk stained their skin with red ochre) and shoot them with their “fire sticks” on sight, or carry them off as captives. The Beothuk despise these ones for they arrive uninvited, exploit the natural resources, and drive them away from the coast and into the forests where the Unwanted Ones fear to go. Kop visits all the traditional gathering places, but not a living soul can be found.

Kop saw the signs of his people on the point of every wooded bend and in the bottom of every cove on the riverbanks. But it was a dead spoor, bereft of all life, as cold as the ring of ash from once-welcome campfires he found beneath the burnt-out frames of mamateeks [birch-bark shelters]. It was as if his people had vanished forever from this valley.

The overarching impact of The Last Beothuk is a combination of two things. First, the intense sense of loneliness felt by Kop as he searches fruitlessly for his people:

He [Kop] rose to his feet and motioned with his hand for her to rise also when the cries began on the pond. Both father and daughter turned toward the sound. It was the mournful cry of the male loon as the light faded. As they listened the bird called once more, long and sorrowing. Then, distinct on the still air, came the pattering sound of the bird leaving the water. The hunter of fish cleared the trees. Then, emitting a magnificent requiem from its fluttering throat, the bird that mated for life flew away. Its cry faded away on the evening air. But no mate flew behind it.

Secondly, there is the impressive imagery which Mr Collins excels at creating. The following excerpt introduces us to Kop, on the trail of a deer that he has just speared.

The figure who stepped into the game trail made no attempt to follow his prey. His leg muscles were tense and cramped from crouching. Long before the dawn he had hidden beneath the sloping, wet boughs of the spruce tree.

It had been carefully chosen, hard by the twisting trail of the kosweet and downwind from the flaring pink nostrils of the deer, which had led the small herd. The hunter had let the young stag, proud and strong, pass where he lay hidden. The rut was barely over and the buck’s meat would be tainted and foul-smelling with its sex glands. Instead he had chosen a female as his target and set out.

Cold autumn rain drizzled through the trees and settled onto the alder bush gorse and low shrubs. The raw wind that blew from the grey east carried the moisture deeper into the shrouded forest. Fog hung among the trees in gossamer webs.

The luxury of stretching relaxed the muscles of the tawny-skinned hunter. He turned into the wind and followed the winding trail the wounded deer had taken into the nearby forest. He wore deerskin clothing, which, with the soaking he’d gotten from his long wait, stank of old animal fat. The hide was plastered to his lean frame in dripping black, grey, and mottled white patches of heavy hair.

He had the easy gait of one born to walk, each effortless step the full length of his reach, a distance-eating stride, light and soundless. The slightly angular, hairless face was framed with a mane of hair the colour of a raven on a rainy night, the weight of it resting on his shoulders. The moisture beaded in his oily hair before dripping onto the warm, reddish-brown skin of his exposed neck. He was a Beothuk Indian, and he didn’t know if he was one of the last of his breed on the Island of Newfoundland.

The Last Beothuk has come to us, not only from the pages of history but from the brilliant mind of Mr. Collins, as he tells yet another forgotten story of Newfoundland. The record of relations between Europeans and any of Canada’s Indigenous peoples is definitely not a pleasant one, so the reader may be left somewhat disheartened after finishing The Last Beothuk. Nevertheless, we can take eminent satisfaction in the certainty that the now extinct Beothuk’s story has been well-told by one of Canada’s master storytellers. As such, The Last Beothuk goes on my 2018 Longlist for “The Very Best!” Book Awards for Historical Fiction.

Included in the book are several black & white images, an Afterword by the author, a bibliography and a select glossary of Beothuk words.

*Please note if you choose to purchase the book through Amazon using the link below I will receive a small commission at no extra cost to you. Here is the direct link: https://amzn.to/2KgBvLD Thanks!

The Last Beothuk by Gary Collins
Flanker Press

This article has been Digiproved © 2017-2019 James Fisher
Acknowledgements: Gary Collins, Flanker Press

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