Canada's aboriginal Holocaust

In the long encounter between European settlers and the aboriginal peoples of North America, perhaps none is more poignant than the saga of the Beothuk, the native people of the rugged island of Newfoundland. The Beothuk, who never numbered more than a few thousand people, first came into conflict with Viking settlers 1,000 years ago. But it was the confrontation with Basque fishermen and the British and French colonialists which was to prove fatal. Through a combination of European-introduced diseases, malnutrition, competition with settlers and other native groups over limited resources, and disruption of traditional fishing sites, the Beothuk - who never possessed firearms - were driven into extinction by 1829. The last known Beothuk was Shanawdithit (born about 1800) who took the name Nancy April after she allowed herself to be rescued from destitution by trappers following her father's drowning in 1823. The trappers brought her to the colonial capital St. John's where she contracted tuberculosis and died in 1829. She was buried in the historic Church of England Cemetery there. Her grave is now lost, although a plaque commemorates her life. Shanawdithit's skull was later presented for study to the Royal College of Physicians in London where it remained until it was given to the Royal College of Surgeons in 1938. Those last remains were destroyed during the Luftwaffe's Blitz of London during World War II. The ironic legacy of the Beothuk is that their custom of using ochre to paint their bodies traditionally has been the reason Europeans called Canadian and American aborigines "Red Indians."