Red Indians and Reconciliation

A society without a shared memory and a shared goal condemns itself

A university instructor wrote a few weeks ago to the Halifax-owned newspaper in St. John’s.  She had “discomfort,” as she put it, when teaching first-year students at Memorial the name of a lake.  The name is “known throughout North America” as a derogatory term for Indigenous people.  Used for “hundreds” of years by “descendants of colonists” in “hostility and disrespect.”

She is happy that provincial politicians will rename Red Indian Lake.  They made the decision suggested by Mi’sel Joe, Sagamaw of the Miawpukek First Nation, to change the lake’s name to a Mi’gmaw phrase meaning peaceful lake.

Ordinary people didn’t like what Premier Andrew Furey and his fellow political leaders cooked up. That didn’t matter.  A done deal, Premier Andrew Furey told reporters. Not his choice, anyway, although it was.  Furey said he had just “facilitated” talks among leaders of Indigenous and First Nations communities in the province.  Evidently no one in the room spoke for the Beothuk, for whom the lake was named a couple of hundred years ago.  

Furey said that the public outcry was a good thing.  People were talking about history, Furey said, which would lead to something called reconciliation. He never said what that meant.

You can hear Furey’s comments at the front end of an interview CBC’s Ted Blades did in April with Mi’sel Joe. Joe angrily dismissed the opponents of his scheme as “shouting and bawling” about something people didn’t care about before now.  They might have cared, of course, except that Furey, Joe, and the other leaders kept their plans to rename the lake a secret. 

For good measure, Mi’sel Joe called Ingeborg Marshall a racist, which apparently meant she didn’t agree with Joe and had evidence to back it up.  Curiously, Blades didn’t challenge Joe on his ugly and untrue description of the foremost authority on the Beothuk.

“The Europeans put the name on that lake, because when they went up to murder the Beothuk people they saw people with red ochre on their face," Joe said in a CBC story that appeared the same day as the radio interview. "They weren't red Indians. We're not red Indians.”

A couple of days later, the done deal wasn’t so done at all.  Furey told reporters that Indigenous leaders consulted with “their members” but many of the people opposed to the lake’s new name were Mi’gmaw people and others who lived by the lake.  No one had asked them about it.  So, the government ran one of its packaged consultation to make it look like they would change their direction.   

Weeks later, the provincial government will change the lake’s name, despite objections from many people across the province. Indigenous affairs minister Lisa Dempster told Canadian Press recently that the “Premier and Indigenous leaders” decided the name is unacceptable in 2021.  In the same story,  Joe said the controversy “provided a good opportunity to educate the public about racism and the province’s Indigenous history.” 

Joe said that the “problem is, it’s been called Red Indian Lake for over 200 years.  The name is not acceptable, Joe said.  “I think, in time, (people) will come to realize that.”


Furey, Dempster and Joe, aren’t talking about  the history of Newfoundland and Labrador and the people who live here, of course.  They,  the university professor, and others are talking about *American* history and *American* popular culture from the last century.  They are  imposing their false story on a completely different people in a completely different situation simply because they have the power to do so.

In Newfoundland and Labrador,  Red Indian Lake is named for the Indigenous people of Newfoundland at the time Europeans arrived here in the late 1400s. It does not refer to the Mi’gmaw people since they did not use red ochre. They are a separate people from the Beothuk. We can say this with confidence because of scholarship by Marshall and others in Newfoundland and Labrador over many decades.  They relied on written European accounts,  archeological evidence, and the oral traditions of Indigenous people.

We can say all this with confidence if for no other reason than because American historian Nancy Shoemaker explained in a 1997 essay for the American Historical ReviewHow Indians got to be red.”  She used the Beothuk story as well as others from across North American to show how some Indigenous people referred to themselves as being “red” people or people who were associated with the colour red.  

People often talk as though Europeans invented the idea of “race” as a way of distinguishing among people, Shoemaker noted.  This assumption robs people of their agency, she argues, of their power to make decisions for themselves, of their own power over their own lives.

This approach to the historical emergence of race as a system for categorizing people replicates what it purports to critique, since the emphasis on European image-making consigns American Indians and other non-white peoples to a passive role in the construction of knowledge. They exist only as the objects of white observation, and the power to label or name resides with Europeans.

For Europeans,  Shoemaker explains, race became the popular way of dividing groups in the 1700s.  Before that,  Europeans tended to distinguish between Christians on the one hand, and non-believers, whom they called savages. Shoemaker offers evidence that Indigenous Americans in some parts of the continent, particularly the south-eastern region, called themselves “red.”  She notes the Beothuk as an example of people who, in their own way, identified themselves with red colouring.

All the same,  as Shoemaker concludes, “’red’ continues to be contested. Indians may have named themselves ‘red,’ but they could not prevent whites from making it a derogatory term. By the nineteenth century, whites had taken ‘red man’ and put it to their own uses. Appearing in the novels of James Fenimore Cooper, captivity narratives, and dime novels, ultimately to be taken up by tobacco advertisers and national sports teams, the noble ‘Red Man’ and the brutal ‘Redskin’ evolved into demeaning and dehumanizing racial epithets.”

That was the United States, though not Newfoundland and Labrador. The one cannot become the other even if local politicians pretend that pulp novels and American westerns are Newfoundland and Labrador history. Robbing people of their agency is akin to robbing them of their identity on the lake where around which they lived.

Arguments about history like the ones about race in North American these days are not really about history at all.  They are usually about modern issues.  Red Indian Lake and the word “savage” are good examples.

In Newfoundland and Labrador, what Andrew Furey and Mi’sel Joe are doing is justified by a myth.  For Furey, this is especially striking since he and his predecessor Dwight Ball talk a lot about making decisions based on evidence.  There is *no* historical evidence to support what the House of Assembly will approve this week.  None. 

Joe and Furey use myth to justify shared political action even if their political objectives may be different. We do not need to consider those political goals here:  just recognize that the reasons politicians given for their actions and the real reasons are two different things. The myths are merely convenient cover for something else.

Mi’sel Joe did not stop with the myth of what Red Indian means in Newfoundland.  He added the long-discredited myth of a genocide by the English against the Beothuk.  The genocide myth is old and strongly rooted in local popular culture.  But it *is* a myth debunked decades ago by sensitive, thorough research by Ralph Pastore, Ingeborg Marshall and others.

There is no question that conflict with English fishermen played a part in the demise of the Beothuk.  But as Pastore explained in 1989,  many things contributed to the  “The collapse of the Beothuk world.”

“The Beothuks were a hunting and gathering people of Algonkian stock,”  Pastore wrote, “whose ancestors in Newfoundland produced tools typologically similar to the late prehistoric Indian inhabitants of  coastal Labrador and the Quebec North Shore. It is also clear that, prior to the coming  of Europeans, the Beothuk occupied,  or at least used, all of the island of Newfoundland with the  possible exception of the Avalon peninsula east of Trinity Bay.”

Despite its enormous size, the island did not have a large number of prey species. The Beothuk needed access to the coasts to supplement what they could hunt in the interior.

The Beothuk, unlike other North American Indigenous people, avoided contact with others. “The  Beothuks  did  not  need  to  enter  into  a  fur  trade  to  obtain  European  goods” according to Pastore, so they did not.  They scavenged what they needed during the winter from the fishing premises of the English who did not over-winter in the early years.  This created suspicion among the English and sometimes that suspicion led to violence. But this was misunderstanding, not genocide.

Newfoundland was not a colony of settlement,  as such, either. English fishermen eventually stayed over the winter because that made it easier to start fishing the next season. It wasn’t until the late 1700s that people emigrated to Newfoundland in large numbers.   Nor did the English bring missionaries with them.  Settlers, traders, and missionaries were- generally – the means by which Europeans started and sustained contacts with Indigenous people. None of those were present in Newfoundland until long after European arrival in the late 15th and early 16th centuries. And so, the Beothuk stayed isolated.

Although the spread of permanent English settlement on the island may have been the most important factor in denying the Beothuks access to vitally needed coastal resources, to that equation must now be added the Basque and Inuit presence in the Strait of Belle Isle, the Micmac [sic] use of the southern third of the island, and the French base at Placentia.

Scholars may not have a “complete understanding of all the effects of these arrivals upon the Beothuk,” Pastore wrote, “ but the pattern revealed by the distribution of Beothuk sites over time is clear enough.”  As they lost contact with Labrador, and cut off from other parts of the island, Pastore argued, “the Beothuk were forced to withdraw to the island’s impoverished interior where there could be but one outcome.”

Although scholars have discredited the genocide story,  the myth has enjoyed a rebirth lately, mostly from North American academics and political activists for whom the story fits a pre-determined racial narrative of North American politics.  It has nothing to do with Beothuk or Newfoundland history. The people who use it do not care about Newfoundland, its people,  or their history.

 Academics, especially those unfamiliar with a given subject and unwilling or unable to conduct thorough research, repeat the myths because they are convenient.  The Internet mingles fact and fiction readily and spreads it widely. Academics, as it turns out, have no greater immunity to misinformation than everyone else.

Local politicians don’t really care about Newfoundland history either.  Myths - like the 1969 Quebec power contract or the notion that Quebec blocks access for Labrador electricity to American markets, for example – are just convenient stories. It is stuff for the punters. Politicians  - like Joe or the people behind Muskrat Falls - rely on the myths  for the same reason as the foreign academics:  they are convenient.   

For our purposes, Red Indian Lake conveniently brings together several larger ideas in one place that help to explain what is happening and why. There is more to it than the myths and politics.   We have the New Colonialists, that is, the people not from Newfoundland and Labrador who regard their views, even if uninformed, as being naturally superior to that of others. The appropriate other peoples’ history and tell it in ways that suit their purposes. We have content assembly:  academics, media, and other writers who put together bits of information and give it a new meaning to fit their needs. The truth is something else.

And we have local elites whose mimicry of foreign political fads reflect both their disconnection from and  disinterest in the community in which they live. There is even evidence in the Red Indian Lake story of the persistence of racism in Newfoundland and Labrador, not as some would have it, from those who oppose the name change, but from its proponents.

A population is a collection of individuals who live in a territory.  They become a people when fashioned by a shared history.  But what happens when that history is replaced by not merely the perception of reality, but by the completely fictitious?

“A society lacking [shared] memory and [a common] project condemns itself,” the philosopher Regis Debray wrote in his recent book Civilization, “and is soon reduced to the ever more precarious management of its ethnic, religious, and political differences.” This is Newfoundland and Labrador whose leaders lack both vision and direction and who willfully treat the shared history of the people who live here as a trifling matter.

Reconciliation recognizes that there are many perspectives on both the past and the future.  But both in the Canadian and the Newfoundland and Labrador experience, sincere people may find a shared understanding of their past and a share future out of their different views.

If reconciliation were the politicians’ genuine goal, they would not act as they do.  We cannot find reconciliation in imposed falsehood.  It must come from a shared memory (history) out of which people may agree on a common future.

Without shared truth, there is no hope for reconciliation.