• Uncategorized

Beothuk (Subarctic Aboriginal People)


Subarctic People

The Subarctic people are often referred to as the first occupants ofCanada, who occupied the largest Canadian regions. The populationcomprised of the Cree, Beothuk, Dene, Ojibwa, Atikamekw and Innucommunities. The zone they occupied largely lies within the CanadianShield of the Mackenzie River swamps as well as the Hudson Bay.Acquiring food was a significant ritual for the population. Theirfood was mainly acquired through hunting, fishing or picking of wildplants. “The edible wild plants they collected included berries,tripe, dandelions, moss and marigold” (Canada’s First Peoples,2007). Fishing and hunting were practiced all through the seasons.They “often hunted moose, caribou, hare, must oxen, bear and elk,as well as waterfowl” (Canada’s First Peoples, 2007).Hunting was mainly a reserve activity by men, while women wereresponsible for drying and preserving the food.

The Subarctic speak in different languages, depending on theiroccupation. Those from the east speak in Algonquian, which was alanguage similar to the Cree. Subarctic from the north communicate inOjibwa, which is a different Algonquian lingo. In the west, thedominant language is Athpascan. Some of the languages used by theSubartic population were difficult to understand. For instance theNorthern Subarctic had above twenty dissimilar adaptations of theAthapakan languages used (Canada’s First Peoples, 2007).

Since the population comprised of different groups, it is importantto narrow down this essay into an analysis of one of the communities.Thus, in the following discussion, the essay focuses on the Beothuk.

Beothuk People

According to the “Newfoundland and Labrador Heritage Website”(2016), the Beothuk are the original inhabitants of Newfoundlandisland. They comprised of a small population of close to one thousandindividuals, whose language was Algonquian. The community was thefirst to assimilate with Europeans, which resulted in theirdisappearance.

The first European settlers to arrive in the island created seasonalcamps, and went back to their homes. Hence, it was possible for thepeaceful Beothuk community to co-exist with early Europeans due totheir occasional presence. In fact, the community benefited from thetools that were left behind by the settlers such as “rope, nets,canvas, nails, hooks, metal and tools, which they fashioned intotools such as arrowheads, lance points, harpoon blades, awls and hidescrapers” (Joseph, 2012). But the Beothuk did not collect thefirearms left behind, which positioned them at a disadvantage inlater disagreements with Europeans.

Unfortunately, during the 17th century, Europeans settled in theisland permanently (Joseph, 2012). They occupied the regions thatacted as gathering centers for the Beothuk community. As a result,the population was pushed out of the sea, which was their main sourceof food. The continued increase in the population of Europeans alsomeant that the Beothuk had to compete for scarce animals duringhunting (Joseph, 2012). Overhunting resulted in the distinction ofanother important food source for the Beothuk, which triggered themto fight the Europeans. While the Beothuk fought using arrows, theEuropeans used firearms. Hence, a majority of the community memberswere killed during the confrontations, which explains their eventualextinction (Joseph, 2012).

Hunting, Food Techniques of the Beothuk

The Beothuk community practiced hunting, gathering as well asfishing. They travelled around the island all through the seasons toestablish the best migrant animal species within Newfoundland. Theanimals included salmon, seals in addition to the caribou (HeritageNewfoundland and Labrador, 2016). There was a specific period forhunting each of the animal species.

Hunters organized themselves along the sea in April/May to huntseals, which the community had discovered to migrate during theperiod. Families stayed put at river mouths in the month of July tocollect salmon. Summer was also characterized by the collection ofdifferent types of sea foods, fish, birds and their eggs. Familiesthen gathered together during fall to engage in the hunting ofcaribou, an activity that dominated most of the winter period. Theanimals they collected were also supplemented with wild plants, suchas berries.

In order to enhance their success during hunting, the Beothukemployed several hunting techniques that were very effective. Forinstance, to capture the caribou, the community observed that theanimals moved in large numbers during fall. Hence, they constructedfences along the river banks with the objective of interrupting themovement of herds (Heritage Newfoundland and Labrador, 2016).Once the herds had been driven into the fence traps, it was easierfor the Beothuk to capture as many animals as possible. The fenceswere made of trees, while branches were used to make bindings aroundthe tree making it impossible for captured animals to escape(Heritage Newfoundland and Labrador, 2016).

The community used food preservation techniques to ensure that thefood collected would sustain them through every hunting and gatheringseason. The meat was cut into small pieces in the form of strips. Thestrips would then be smoked or dried to avoid spoiling (HeritageNewfoundland and Labrador, 2016). The food technique also made iteasier to carry large quantities of meat, and at the same time thefood could be consumed without the necessity for further cooking. Ininstances where animals were captured in excess numbers, the bonesfrom the surplus meat would be removed, and the meat was arranged inboxes. The boxes would then be stored in specially constructedstorage houses, which were frozen.

Another unique food technique practiced by the community was theircooking strategies. “Cooking was usually done over an open fire,either in a mamateek or outdoors. The Beothuk lit a fire by strikingtwo pieces of iron pyrite together to produce sparks that wouldignite bird down or other easily inflammable matter” (HeritageNewfoundland and Labrador, 2016). Meat was roasted in big chunksusing a spit. Small pieces were tied to sticks placed around thefire. Food items such as fowl were cooked using birch-barkcontainers. Some of the containers were huge enough and used to boilmany birds at once. The water was brought to a boiling point throughthe placement of heated rocks inside the containers, a process thatwould continue until the food was ready.

Rituals and Beliefs

Marshall (1998) explains that “as part of the Algonkian family oftribes the Beothuk are likely to have believed in a multiplicity ofanimate beings”. This means that the community referred to allobjects on earth as alive, with each having its own spirit. Hence,the moon, animals, sun and plants were handled with respect. As aresult, some of the Beothuk people considered the moon and sun asobjects to be worshipped. In addition, the people believed that greatspirits derived from the sea. Such spirits included “a powerfulmonster from the sea and Aich-mud-yim, or Black Man” (Marshall,1998).

Owing to the communities respect for animals, it was mandatory topractice some rituals during hunting and prior to preparing meat.Also, specific rules had to be followed when killing and throwingaway unwanted parts of an animal. For instance, the Beothuk from theNorthern regions of the island practiced mokoshan (Marshall, 1998).This was a ritual held in honor of the caribou, which involvedboiling as well as crushing the animal’s bones to draw the marrowthat would be eaten by all community members. Another approach usedto honor animal spirits was the use of bones to carve pendants thatwould be used during burials. The carvings would be beautified byadding patterns and use of red ochre (Marshall, 1998).

Another practice, which is assumed to have attracted the Europeansto the Beothuk, was the common tradition of covering their bodies,weapons, canoes, attire and utensils by use of red ochre (Marshall,1998). The ochre was important as it was utilized as a sign ofidentity to the Beothuk community. It was applied on the body asearly as infancy and considered a form of initiation. The ochreceremony was held every year. The widespread use of red ochre derivedfrom the belief that the red color was a representation of mysticalpower.


The community mainly used tools during hunting. Different tools wereused to capture the distinct animal species. The spear, referred toas amina, was utilized during the hunt for caribou. It comprised of a“3 m wooden shaft, tipped with a slender, nearly triangular ironpoint. Originally the spears would have had stone or bone points”(Heritage Newfoundland and Labrador, 2016). Other tools usedwere arrows, traps and snares to capture furbearers. When huntingseals, the community utilized a specially made harpoon. It was madeusing a shaft that had a removable head tied to a line. The sealwould be harpooned, and the shaft withdrawn, and in the process theanimal would be hauled using the line. Spears were also common amongthe Beothuk people for capturing fish and large sea animals like thewhale (Heritage Newfoundland and Labrador, 2016). Other commontools among the community were clubs, blades and stone splinters. Thetools were effective in hunting, but were also perishable due to thematerial used in making them.

Clothing and Housing

The Beothuk wore different types of clothes during the summer andwinter. In summer, men dressed in loincloths that had leggings madeof leather during the winter season. Females dressed in leatherskirts. The leather was collected from dried caribou skin (Waldman,2014). It was also common for men and women to dress in clothes thatresembled ponchos and had a hood. The women used the hood forcarrying babies. In the winter season, the Beothuk dressed inmoccasins as well as mittens. The community lived in houses thatresemble lodges called mamateeks (Waldman, 2014). Some were tinystructures that would be carried from one point to another. However,others were large and could house up to 15 occupants. The smalllodges were common in the summer owing to the constant movement ofindividuals while hunting and gathering. The large ones were commonin winter. The houses were made using branches organized in circleand tied at the top, to make a cone shape structure.


The Beothuk people were an interesting community. Although they havebecome extinct, it is great to learn about their unique foodtechniques, the tools they employed, their clothing and housing andrituals and belief systems.


Canada’s First Peoples. (2007). Subarctic people. Retrievedfrom: http://firstpeoplesofcanada.com/fp_groups/fp_subarctic3.html

Heritage Newfoundland and Labrador. (2016). Hunting tools andtechniques Food preparation and storage. Retrieved from:http://www.heritage.nf.ca/articles/aboriginal/beothuk-hunting.php

Joseph, B. (2016). The Beothuk and how European contact led to theirextinction. Indigenous Corporate Training Inc. Retrieved from:http://www.ictinc.ca/blog/aboriginal-peoples-the-beothuk-and-how-european-contact-led-to-their-extinction

Marshall, I. (1998). Beothuk religious beliefs and practices. NativeReligions. Retrieved from:http://www.mun.ca/rels/native/beothuk/beo_religion.html

Newfoundland and Labrador Heritage Web Site. (2016). TheBeothuk. Retrieved from:http://www.heritage.nf.ca/articles/aboriginal/beothuk.php

Waldman, C. (2014).&nbspEncyclopediaof Native American tribes.New York: Facts on File.