Original Research

Who speaks for extinct nations? The Beothuk and narrative voice

C. Leggo
Literator | Vol 16, No 1 | a582 | DOI: https://doi.org/10.4102/lit.v16i1.582 | © 1995 C. Leggo | This work is licensed under CC Attribution 4.0
Submitted: 30 April 1995 | Published: 30 April 1995

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C. Leggo, Department of Language Education, University of British Columbia, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada

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Abstract

The Beothuk of Newfoundland were among the first inhabitants of North America to encounter European explorers and settlers. By the first part of the nineteenth century the Beothuk were extinct, exterminated by the fishers and soldiers and settlers of western Europe. The last Beothuk was a woman named Shanadithit. She was captured and lived with white settlers for a few years before she died in 1829. Today all that remains of the Beothuk nation, which once numbered seven hundred to one thousand people, are some bones, arrowheads, tools, written records of explorers and settlers, and copies of drawings by Shanadithit in the Newfoundland Museum. In recent years several writers (all are white and male) have written fiction and poetry and drama about the Beothuk, including Peter Such (Riverrun, 1973), Paul O'Neill (Legends of a Lost Tribe, 1976), Sid Stephen (Beothuk Poems, 1976), Al Pittman ("Shanadithit," 1978), Geoffrey Ursell (The Running of the Deer; A Play, 1981), Donald Gale (Sooshewan: A Child of the Beothuk, 1988), and Kevin Major (Blood Red Ochre, 1990). A recurring theme in all these narratives is the theme of regret and guilt. These narrative accounts of the Beothuk raise significant questions about voice and narrative, including: Who can speak for Native peoples? Who can speak for extinct peoples? Are there peoples without voices? How is voice historically determined? What is the relationship between voice and power? How are the effects of voice generated? What is an authentic voice? How is voice related to the illusion of presence? What is the relation between voice and silence? In examining contemporary narrative accounts of the Beothuk my goal is to reveal the rhetorical ways in which the Beothuk are given voice(s) and to interrogate the ethical and pedagogical implications of contemporary authors revisiting and revisioning and re-voicing a nation of people long extinct.

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