Distribution and Size of the Beothuk Population, Leadership and Communal Activities

Archaeological investigations have shown that Beothuk or their immediate forbears, the precontact Little Passage Indians (named after the site where their remains were first excavated), have at one time or another lived in all major bays of the island. They also hunted and overwintered on the banks of the Exploits River and Red Indian Lake and in other inland areas. Seventeenth- and eighteenth-century reports from fishermen and settlers, often relayed by officers of the British Navy, confirm the Beothuk's presence in these regions.


Old campsites and burials have been found on the south coast at Burgeo, at Couteau, Hermitage and Placentia bays, and at Bay d'Espoir. On the Avalon Peninsula Little Passage stone tools have been excavated at Ferryland, at South Dildo and Dildo Pond, and at Bull Arm in Trinity Bay. Remains have also been unearthed at The Beaches, Cape Freels, and Gambo Pond, among other places, in Bonavista Bay.

There are numerous historic and precontact Beothuk camp and burial sites on the coast and the islands of Notre Dame Bay. Best known is the site at Boyd's Cove, which is a Provincial Historic Site and has a beautiful and informative interpretation centre. The heartland of Beothuk country, at least in the eighteenth century, was the region around the Exploits River and Red Indian Lake. Many old mamateek pits (mamateek is the Beothuk word for house) on the river banks and the lake shore, often nearly obliterated, attest to the Beothuk's long residence there. Precontact (Little Passage) sites have also been found on the west coast, for example, in the Codroy Valley, at Port au Choix, at the Bay of Islands and in St. Paul's Bay.

Map Showing Little Passage Campsites, Beothuk Campsites and Sightings and Beothuk Burials
Map Showing Little Passage Campsites, Beothuk Campsites and Sightings and Beothuk Burials
Illustration by Duleepa Wijayawardhana, ©1998. Based on a map by Cliff George.

Bands and Tribes

Among Algonquians (the language family to which the Beothuk belonged) language and cultural features identified tribes, while bands were important social and political units. Most likely the Beothuk were organized in a similar manner. Because their bands were widely dispersed over a very large geographical area, they are believed to have conducted their daily affairs independently.

As a hunting and fishing people, the Beothuk moved with the seasons. In spring and summer families dispersed along the coast; in fall they hunted and trapped inland or congregated for the caribou drive along waterways. Each band would have required a fairly large region to be able to catch the diversity of food species that was required for its survival. For example, in the early 1600s, the Beothuk who met and traded with John Guy from the English colony in Cupids fished and collected birds and eggs on the coast of Trinity Bay and caught salmon in the Come-by-Chance River in Placentia Bay. They may also have ranged the islands of this bay to make use of its large harbour seal population.

Thus, the territory of this band was extensive, and if we can assume that other bands used a similarly large area, the size of the Beothuk population would have been relatively small. There is good evidence that the Beothuk population amounted to about 500 to 700 people at the time of first contact. Beothuk bands are believed to have had between 35 and 55 members.

Hunter-fisher band societies such as that of the Beothuk were usually egalitarian. Some leadership was provided by a person, usually a male, who was respected for his experience and wisdom. He ruled by informal influence rather than by absolute power. Among the Beothuk, leaders or chiefs sought the advice of a council. Their status symbols were staves, certain items of clothing, a mamateek that was larger than those of other members of the group, and special burial privileges.

Communal Ceremonies

Of the communal ceremonies that have been recorded, the most significant was that of applying red ochre on the face and body of every member of the group. It was a mark of tribal identity, and the first coating received by infants was a sign of initiation. Canoes, weapons, utensils and clothing were also covered with ochre. The event was accompanied by feasting, dancing and games. To be told to remove the ochre was considered a form of punishment.

Another important ceremony was the communal feast known among the Innu of Labrador as mokoshan. It was celebrated in honour of the caribou spirit and involved the extraction, boiling and consumption of substantial amounts of marrow from caribou leg-bones. All members of the community took part. While we have no contemporary record that the Beothuk celebrated this feast, circumstantial evidence, such as their tradition of collecting caribou leg-bones and accumulations of caribou bone mash residue found in an oval structure at Boyd's Cove and on other Beothuk camp sites, strongly suggest that this was the case.

The Dancing Woman by Shanawdithit
"The Dancing Woman" by Shanawdithit.
From James P. Howley, The Beothuks or Red Indians: the Aboriginal Inhabitants of Newfoundland (Cambridge: University Press, 1915) 248. Original drawing in The Rooms Provincial Museum Division, St. John's, NL.

According to Shanawdithit, the Beothuk also celebrated a victory by dancing around the heads of slain enemies. A ceremony of this type was conducted in the winter of 1811 at Red Indian Lake. The occasion was their escape from Captain Buchan's party, that had unexpectedly turned up at the Beothuk camp. To remain undetected they killed and beheaded the two hostages Buchan had left with them and later danced around the heads in victory feasts.

Among North American Native people the removal of the enemy's head preceded the tradition of scalping. The Beothuk appear to have largely maintained the old tradition.

Head of Marine Stuck on a Pole
Head of Marine Stuck on a Pole
The head was placed in the centre of two circles which the Beothuk danced and sang around for two hours.
Enlarged section from Shanawdithit's Sketch I. From James P. Howley, The Beothuks or Red Indians: the Aboriginal Inhabitants of Newfoundland (Cambridge: University Press, 1915) following p. 238.

Other community activities were the recitation of events and the teaching of Beothuk traditions and beliefs. Beothuk families also joined in songs. Topics of songs included natural phenomena, animals, canoes, bows and arrows, other Indians, white men's guns, stages and other belongings, and the cutting loose of their boats. There is no indication that they had musical instruments.

Cooperation between bands seems to have been largely confined to activities concerned with providing food. For example, several Beothuk bands would have joined for the annual caribou drive, which entailed constructing and maintaining extensive fence works and driving migrating herds towards traps or selected river crossings.

Reluctance to Trade

As a group, the Beothuk were also united in their reluctance to trade for furs with the English, possibly because there had been repeated hostilities and because trade could have led to the depletion of game. Their consistent rejection of guns might have been based on the fact that they would have had to rely on the whites for ammunition, a dependence they would have wanted to avoid at all costs.

Yet, despite the fact that bands hunted together and that all of them refrained from trade in furs and from the adoption of guns, organized resistence against the English or other intruders, particularly in the early days, has never been reported. As hostilities accelerated and the Beothuk were increasingly prevented from access to their traditional food resources, remnants of bands may have joined to face the ravages of starvation and disease together.

Version française