The Beothuk Saga
Translated by Wayne Grady
McClelland & Stewart
Anyone who has listened even with one ear to the sad tale of North America’s First People know that there are no more Beothuks. But Assiniwi tells their story with such interesting detail that half way through I found myself hoping against hope that they would survive.
The novel, which won the Prix France-Quebec in 1997, is divided into three main sections. The first, “The Initiate,” begins at the start of the last millennium with Anin two years into a voyage of initiation in manhood, paddling around Newfoundland. As the story opens, his solitary mission is interrupted as he encounters a young woman, Woasut, whose people have been massacred by enemies from another tribe. They continue together, taking care to make winter camp well inland from a Viking settlement they see from afar. In the spring they’re joined by a Viking woman fleeing her violent countrymen. Before long the woman’s sister also finds them, as do two runaway Scottish slaves.
What is striking about these encounters is the way the Viking and Scots are shown to be from societies not much more modern than Amin’s. They have metal: the Scots girl slave has run off with an metal axe whose efficiency amazes Amin. But these outlanders also come from a world where it’s important to know about hunting, fishing, hard work, and rough shelter. If anything Amin’s society offers more than theirs did, since in the Beothuks’ world there is no slavery, and no God who damns people who don’t believe in Him.
When they all arrive back at Amin’s village, the people he’s brought home with him are assimilated into the society, his exploits pass into Beothuk oral tradition, and the stage is set for 500 years, more or less, of a hard but agreeable life.
The second section, “The Invaders,” jumps forward to the 16th century when the first Portuguese and French explorers arrived. The Beothuks repel the invaders at first, gaining a reputation for being as dangerous as wolves. But they are unprepared for life in constant contact with Europeans. After one final, losing battle in which they try to throw out the new arrivals, they are forced to retreat to the interior of the island.
The third section, “Genocide,” is the story of the 18th and 19th centuries, and is heart-breaking. The Beoethuks struggle to survive, but don’t. We’ve known that all along, of course, but that doesn’t detract from the poignancy.
Born to a Québécoise mother and a Cree father, Assiniwi was a curator of ethnology and a researcher at the Canadian Museum of Civilization in Hull until shortly before his death at age 65 in September. He also was the author of nearly 30 non-fiction works, ranging from books of traditional Native recipes to the three volume Histoire des Indiens du Haut et du Bas Canada.
Without knowing Assiniwi’s credentials it might be possible to dismiss his descriptions of the Beothuk Golden Age as Noble Savage sentimentalism, since the book has a bibliography but no footnotes. But start to track his sources down, and it becomes clear that his story is based on careful archeological and ethnological research. Jane Smiley’s The Greenlanders (a saga of the Vikings’ Greenland) and Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel (about what happens when societies collide) also support Assiniwi’s premises, and make great supplementary reading. mRb