The National Museum of Wales has in it’s possession two skulls which belonged to a Beothuk Chief and his wife from over two hundred years ago. It is said that the couple were taken from their graves in 1820 and sent to an Edinburgh based collector in the 1820s. Many have called for the skulls to be repatriated back to their homeland.
The skulls belonged to chief Nonosbasut and his wife Demasduit, and are currently stored in the museum but not currently on display. Last year the Canadian department of heritage minister Melanie Joly, made a speech indicating she intended to formally request that the skulls be returned. However the Museum has stated that no request has yet been received at least formally.
One Native American campaigner, of the Miawpukek First Nation has travelled to Edinburgh and been given access to the skulls allegedly stolen from their graves near Cormack. He has been calling for the return of the skulls since 2015.
The chief was believed to have been killed by John Peyton Jr and his men in 1819. His wife was captured and lived for a brief period with a Church of England priest. However she died of TB in 1820 and was buried with husband after being recovered by the tribe.
It is from their resting pace that it is believed William Cormack took them and along with other pieces transferred them back to the University of Edinburgh to be stored in their collections. The issue has been raised in the Scottish Parliament and it is expected any formal request to be treated sympathetically.
However although the Culture Secretary has met with representatives who wish the skulls to be brought back, the formal procedures haven’t yet been instigated. These involve a request from a National Government backed by a national museum and a community with some direct relation to the individuals. It has to be done at this level and therefore much research needs to be completed. This site which offers a UK VPN free trial is useful for UK and European access to academic sites.
Unfortunately this could be the issue, as the Beothuk tribe is no longer in existence and the remains represent the last of the tribe. However there is some additional rules for these situations where the claim can be made by groups which are affiliated or share cultures and beliefs to the community in question.
There are lots of precedents for these sort of returns from UK based museums. A Maori war flag was returned to New Zealand last year. This followed an approach by the New Zealand National Museum backed by the government. The flag was apparently ‘taken’ from a Maori tribe after a battle in 1865. The story of the flag’s journey to Scotland however remain something of mystery.
In 1999 a Sioux relic taken from a warrior killed in the Wounded Knee massacre was returned from Scotland. The relic had been displayed in the Kelvingrove Museum for more than a century before being handed back to the descendents of the battle from South Dakota.
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