Native American skulls heading back to Canada after 200 years

National Museum of Scotland Principal Curator, David Forsyth, shows Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau some of the objects from the collections.
National Museum of Scotland Principal Curator, David Forsyth, shows Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau some of the objects from the collections.
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Two Native American skulls are to be sent back to Canada from Scotland – nearly 200 years after they were taken from their graves.

The National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh has agreed to return the remains of two of the last members of the Beothuk tribe in Newfoundland.

The Canadian government had asked for the return of the skulls and burial objects of tribe chief Nonosabasut, who was believed to have been murdered by British officers in 1819, and his wife Demasduit, who died of tuberculosis the following year.

The transfer, which has been approved by the Scottish Government following a lengthy campaign, will see the remains relocated to the Canadian Museum of History in Ottowa.

Scots-Canadian explorer William Cormack removed the remains from the graves in 1928 and sent them to Edinburgh University professor Robert Jameson, his mentor.

The collection, which also includes a model birch bark canoe, two birch bark dishes, and a birch bark drinking cup, was transferred into the collection of the National Museum several decades later.

Native American campaigners have previously visited Edinburgh to meet museum officials and see the skulls, which were not on public display, but were held in its collection centre on the city’s waterfront.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau also visited the museum – the busiest visitor attraction in Scotland – in 2017.

Dwight Ball, premier of Newfoundland, said: “The news that we are one step closer to the repatriation of the Beothuk remains held by National Museum of Scotland is tremendously significant – for indigenous communities, for our province and for Canada.

Our government and indigenous leaders throughout our province came together at Newfoundland and Labrador’s first ever Indigenous Leaders Roundtable in 2017 to make this a priority, and to partner with the Federal Government in advancing this work. I especially want to thank Miawpukek First Nation Chief Mi’sel Joe for his leadership and international advocacy on this issue.

“Through tremendous partnership and perseverance, we can restore these remains to their rightful home, reflect on what has been lost, and be hopeful about what can be gained through reconciliation, and by honouring indigenous culture.”

Dr Gordon Rintoul, director of the museum, said: “We’re pleased to have reached this agreement and to be able to transfer the remains of these two Beothuk people to the country where they lived and were buried.

“The board of trustees received a request in July 2018 to transfer the remains of two Beothuk people, Nonosabasut and Demasduit, to the Canadian Museum of History.

“Following careful consideration in line with our human remains in collections policy, the board approved the request and we have sought and now received the required approval from the Scottish Government.

“We’ve informed the Canadian government and the Canadian Museum of History and are now making arrangements to transfer the remains.”