The Beothuk, speakers of a proto-Algonkian language, had lived in the area now known as Newfoundland and southern Labrador, Canada, for more than two thousand years before John Cabot's landing in 1647. Nomadic, they followed the coastlines, taking advantage of the rich migratory fisheries, shorebirds, and land and sea mammals. In winter they supplemented their diets with inland caribou, herded through specially constructed fences.
Estimates of the Beothuk population in 1500 vary widely, ranging from seven hundred to five thousand individuals, organized into bands of seven to ten families, comprising thirty-five to fifty people. Egalitarian in social organization with decision making by consensus, each band bestowed leadership positions on those men and women respected for their wisdom and experience. They called themselves Beothuk (red people) in reference to the red ochre paint mixed with fish oil or animal grease that coated their bodies, clothing, canoes, and personal goods. The coating, which served as a symbol of tribal identity and initiation, may be the basis for the later European term "redskins."
The Beothuk learned early on to mistrust European explorers, who captured dozens of their people between 1501 and 1510, transporting them to Europe as slaves. For the next 150 years Europeans fished off the Newfoundland coast, making few permanent settlements, but cutting off the Beothuk from their traditional fishing grounds during the important summer months. The Micmac, once allies but now armed by the British, further reduced the food supply by invading the Beothuk's territory and killing their game for the fur trade.
Unlike other tribes, the Beothuk refused to enter into relations with the Europeans, enforcing a penalty of death on those who did. By the 1720s Beothuk relations with European settlers and the Micmac had deteriorated beyond repair. The Europeans, angered by the Beothuk practice of stealing and scavenging iron implements, which the tribe then refashioned into various tools, responded by frequently killing Beothuk, who in turn exacted their own revenge. By 1768 the Micmac and European settlers had pushed the Beothuk further north, reducing their number to fewer than four hundred people attempting to subsist on the inadequate resources of the Exploits River system. Although some early efforts were made to protect the Beothuk, official intervention on the part of the Canadian government came too late. By 1823 starvation and disease, especially tuberculosis, had left only three female survivors. The last known Beothuk, Shanawdithit, a twenty-six-year-old young woman, died in 1829 from tuberculosis.
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Frederick, William (1977). Extinction: The Beothuks of Newfoundland. New York: McGraw-Hill Ryerson.
Marshall, Ingeborg (1989). Reports and Letters by George Christopher Pulling Relating to the Beothuk Indians of Newfoundland. St. John's, Newfoundland: Breakwater.
Marshall, Ingeborg (1996). A History and Ethnography of the Beothuk. Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press.
Pastore, Ralph T. (1997). "The Beothuks." Available from http://www.heritage.nf.ca/aboriginal/beothuk.html.