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Beothuk Religious
Beliefs and Practices
By Ingeborg Marshall

We know relatively little about the Beothuk's world view and their religious practices. Though some information has come to us from Beothuk captives or can be deduced from certain artifacts, much of it remains unconfirmed. As part of the Algonkian family of tribes the Beothuk are likely to have believed in a multiplicity of animate beings. This belief system considered every conspicuous object in nature, such as the sun and moon, animals and plants, as being alive and imbued with its own spirit that had to be treated with respect. Within this framework the beliefs of different groups varied. In agreement with the origin myth of other Algonkian groups the Beothuk believed that they sprang from an arrow stuck in the ground.

According to the Beothuk captive Oubee, her people worshipped the sun and moon. Shanawdithit, the last known Beothuk, said that the spirit world of her people included a "Great Spirit," a "Powerful Monster" from the sea and Aich-mud-yim, or "Black Man." She also disclosed that the first white men who came to Newfoundland came from the good spirit, while later arrivals, as well as Mi'kmaq, came from the bad spirit. An invariable religious principle demanded that those Beothuk who made peace with either of these groups would be sacrificed to the spirits of their slain kin.

With regard to the spirits of animals, the Beothuk most likely observed rituals in the context of hunting, such as special preparations before a hunt and certain rules in the killing and disposal of an animal, as did other native groups. Northern Algonkian big game hunters particularly honoured the caribou spirit with a ritual feast called mokoshan. It entailed the crushing and boiling of caribou longbones to extract the marrow which was consumed by all members of the community. Considerable amounts of bone mash (the residue left after the marrow has been extracted) have been found on several Beothuk campsites. At the Boyd's Cove site such accumulations were excavated inside the pit of a large oval-shaped mamateek (the Beothuk name for house), similar in size and shape to the houses used by Montagnais/Naskapi for their mokoshan. Archaeologists have therefore deduced that the Beothuk probably observed a similar ritual.

Honouring animal spirits may also have been the function of those small, flat, bone carvings or pendants that have been found in Beothuk burials. These carvings are decorated with patterns and rubbed with red ochre; no two pieces are alike. Some of them appear to be abstractions of skeletal limbs, some are reminiscent of bird's feet and others may symbolize mammalian figures, suggesting that they might have been symbolic representations of animals or birds or parts thereof. While we do not know their significance, comparisons with similar pieces from other native groups indicate that they could have been worn as amulets or tokens of guardian spirits. In other groups a guardian spirit was acquired in a vision quest and tokens were henceforth kept on the person to give protection and increase personal power.

Bone Pendants. Bone Pendants.
Beothuk bone carvings with incised patterns on both faces that have been rubbed with red ochre. Three carvings in the bottom row could represent skeletal limbs.
(Courtesy of David Keenlyside, Canadian Museum of Civilization, Hull)
Beothuk necklace consisting of six decorated bone carvings and an animal tooth.
(Courtesy of the Newfoundland Museum, St. John's).

A practice which attracted the attention and curiosity of Europeans was the Beothuk's custom of covering their faces and entire body, as well as their clothes, weapons, utensils and canoes, with red ochre. The ochre was considered to be a mark of tribal identity, and the first coat was applied in infancy as a sign of initiation. A major ochring ceremony was held once a year. Since red ochre was found in quantities in Beothuk burials, it probably also had a belief-related meaning, as was the case with other native groups who thought that the reddish colour symbolized supernatural power.

Beothuk Burial Beothuk Burial.
Beothuk burial under rock overhang at Fox Bar, Bonavista Bay, with ochre in the ground still visible.
(Courtesy of Ingeborg Marshall, Portugal Cove)

In addition to ochre, Beothuk burials contained a variety of grave goods. There were provisions and articles of daily use, such as packages of food, birch bark cups and moccasins, equipment related to hunting, including weapons and miniature canoe replicas, and tokens to ensure protection, such as bone carvings, animal teeth and bird's feet. According to Shanawdithit, the souls of the deceased needed these items on their journey to the country of the dead. She confirmed that life after physical death was spent in the country of the "good spirit" on an island where they could hunt and fish and feast. Those Beothuk who had been sacrificed to the spirits of the dead (because they had made peace with the whites or the Mi'kmaq) would not reach this island, and their graves would not be furnished with grave goods.

Grave goods from a child's burial.
The grave goods from this burial, found on Big Island in Pilley's Tickle, Notre Dame Bay, included several canoe replicas and many birch bark containers.
(From The Beothucks or Red Indians by J.P. Howley, Cambridge Univ. Press, 1915, Plate XXXIV)
Grave Goods
Moccasin from the same burial on Big Island in Pilley's Tickle, Notre Dame Bay.
(Courtesy of the Newfoundland Museum, St. John's)
Male figurine from the same burial on Big Island in Pilley's Tickle, Notre Dame Bay.
(Courtesy of the Newfoundland Museum, St. John's).

Shanawdithit also sketched six ochre-coloured "emblems of mythology" or staves. Three of them have geometrical shapes at the top, the others have a half-circle, a whale tail and a Newfoundland fishing boat. The staff with small squares, called Ash-wa-meet, appears to have been used in a ritual accompanied by songs; the staff with a half-circle, called Kuus, indicates a particular significance of the moon. The meaning of the other four staves remains unknown.

That the Beothuk played bowl-and-dice games can be deduced from the fact that gaming pieces were found in some of their burials though we do not know what the rules were. Generally, the dice were thrown into the air and scored according to the way they landed with the marked side up or down. Counting methods could be very complex. Among other North American groups, games were not only played for entertainment but could have spiritual implications such as curing an illness, or assisting recently departed souls to reach the other world safely; preparations could include dreaming, fasting and sacrifices. It is possible that the Beothuk gaming complex was similar.

Gaming pieces.
Gaming Pieces with patterns on one face that have been rubbed with red ochre. Probably seven pieces formed a set: three diamond shaped and three rectangular ones and an odd piece; also combs from the same burial cave on Swan Island, Bay of Exploits.
(Courtesy of the Newfoundland Museum, St. John's)

© 1998 Ingeborg Marshall on behalf of the Beothuk Institute