By Barbara Barker
and Tyler McCreary
Every school child knows that you should respect a person’s name. And in accordance with this simple maxim, Grade 2 students in the town of Grand Falls-Windsor, Newfoundland are petitioning to change the name of the Mary March Museum —- named after a Beothuk woman captured by European settlers in 1819 —- to her real name: Demasduit.
Demasduit was captured by European settlers in 1819 and was renamed Mary March. A minister selected the name in respect to the Blessed Virgin Mary and in memory of the month in which Demasduit was kidnapped in a settler’s raid on a Beothuk camp. Demasduit’s husband was killed trying to prevent her capture, and her infant son died a few days after she was taken. Within a year of her capture, Demasduit died of tuberculosis, and her people were extinct within a decade. The last known surviving member of the Beothuk people was Demasduit’s niece, Shanawdithit, who died in St. Johnï¿½s in 1829.
The initiative to change the museum’s name began some four years ago when Megan Wells, then a grade two student, went to work with her mother at the Mary March Museum as part of a class assignment. Wells was struck by the fact that a museum commemorating Demasduit and her people did not honour the Beothuk in their own language. In her report on the visit, Wells wrote, “Maybe some day, they will change the name of the museum to the name she was born with, ‘The Demasduit Regional Museum.’ That would really help us to remember who she really was!”
“The kids realize the injustice which was done to the Beothuk and the need to set the record straight. Their empathy is unbelievable.” —Anne Warr, teacher
Ever since Wells wrote her report, students in Anne Warr’s grade two classes have called the museum the Demasduit Museum. Then, this year, her grade two students started a petition to change the name of the Museum to the Demasduit Centre of the Founding Peoples. Warr says, “The kids realize the injustice which was done to the Beothuk and the need to set the record straight. Their empathy is unbelievable.”
Moved by the story of the Beothuk and of Demasduit, grade two student Connor O’Driscoll helped collect signatures on the petition by going class to class in his primary school. O’Driscoll stated in a CBC interview, “We cannot right the wrong that our ancestors did to the Beothuk people as a whole, but we can do something for Demasduit. We all think that Demasduit is a beautiful name. We feel that it wasn’t nice to take her real name away from her. One way to start making it up to her is to […] put her real name on a building for all the world to see.”
The class wrote a number of letters asking for support for the petition. The local Member of Parliament Scott Simms, the town’s Member of the House of Assembly (MHA) Anna Thistle, the Mayor and Town Council, the Beothuk Institute, and the Sple’tk First Nation have all endorsed the petition.
Some resistance, however, was voiced by Megan Skinner, daughter of Irene Skinner, one of the original founders of the museum. “The name Mary March was chosen because it was so representative of the links between the Beothuks and the white man,” Skinner told CBC News.
Warr, however, maintains that “any connection which would symbolize and celebrate the injustice that was done should be removed. Why would Demasduit want a European name?”
The petition will be tabled by MHA Anna Thistle in Newfoundland and Labrador’s House of Assembly in September. The final decision lies with the Tourism Minister, but Warr maintains that she is optimistic. “The name should have been changed a long time ago. The children have raised the consciousness of the community.”
Barbara Barker was born in Grand Falls-Windsor and studies law in Saskatoon. Tyler McCreary is a graduate student in Geography at the University of Saskatchewan.
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