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Social Anthropology: Events


Belonging to Newfoundland: arguments about the repatriation of the skulls of Nonosabasut and Demasduit from the National Museum of Scotland

Belonging to Newfoundland: arguments about the repatriation of the skulls of Nonosabasut and Demasduit from the National Museum of Scotland
Speaker: Dr John Harries # University of Edinburgh
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Date and Time
24th Nov 2017 15:00 - 24th Nov 2017 17:00
Seminar Room 2, Chrystal Macmillan Building

The proposed paper discusses the recent and ongoing attempts to petition the National Museum of Scotland to return the skulls of two Beothuk, named Nonosabasut and Demasduit, to the island of Newfoundland. The skulls were removed their graves and transported to Edinburgh in 1827. In 2012 Mi’sel Joe, chief of the Miawpukek Mi’kmaq First Nation, took up the cause of repatriation eventually securing political support for from the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador and then the National Government of Canada.

This is a familiar situation, with an indigenous people seeking to repatriate the remains of “their” ancestors and a museum which seems reluctant to accede to this request. There are, however, some peculiarities: 1) The Beothuk are thought to be extinct and so the question how these remains “belong” to any living people is complex; 2) The moves to repatriate have received broad support for indigenous peoples and settlers alike. To quote Chief Joe, “The claim I'm making is not an Aboriginal claim. It's a claim for Newfoundland.” It is this sense that the skulls “belong” to Newfoundland which will be the focus of this paper. In particular, drawing on “new materialist” theorising concerning the agency of things and elaborating on vernacular ideas of belonging, this paper will argue an approach to question of repatriation that foregrounds materialities of attachment and so suggest the possibility that the question of repatriation is not only resolved in reference to the wishes of the living but also the dispositions of the dead.

Dr. John Harries is a senior teaching fellow in Social Anthropology at the University of Edinburgh. His research concerns the memory and materiality with particular reference to contemporary politics of identity in postcolonial settler societies. He has explored these issues through an ongoing ethnographic study of the ways in which the Beothuk, a thought-to-be-extinct First Nations people, are remembered in Newfoundland, Canada. In the context of this work, he has become increasingly interested in the exploration of the affective presence and emotive materiality of human remains, as well as other things and substances (stones, blood etc.) that are enrolled into the ways in which we materialise the presence of the past. He is also involved in the TRACES project, funded by an EU Horizon 2020 grant, which investigates the challenges and opportunities raised when transmitting complex pasts and the role of difficult heritage in contemporary Europe.

John Harries photo