The Mamateek

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Historical Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic
Why are the village children not allowed into the Grey Birds' Marsh?
A violent storm brings a stranger into the Beothuk village.

Submitted: November 19, 2007

A A A | A A A

Submitted: November 19, 2007





























James Gagiikwe

© 2007









As told by Shanawdithit: a story told to her by Silver Fox, grandmother of Shanawdithit and great-granddaughter of Two-Bears. “Since Storm-Singer died we tell this story to our children and grandchildren so that they will not play in the Grey Birds’ Marsh.”




The sea-storm had raged over four sunsets. After it blew out, three canoes of our men went across the bay to Seabird Island to fish and hunt. They had been gone three sunsets. They were not due back for another two sunsets. Since the storm the women and children had been gathering driftwood from the shoreline to dry outside our mamateeks. It would soon be the time for gathering berries. Then the people would hunt before the winter came. The driftwood was a gift from the storm-god.


Stone Worker, though old, still had good eyes. While the people gathered wood he stood on the hillside and watched for signs of seals or fish close to shore. He shouted when he saw the canoes coming through the passage between Muskrat Island and Marten Island. He told them that there was an extra person in the second canoe. Everyone ran to the beach to watch. ‘Why have they come back early, and who is the stranger’, they asked each other. The canoes came up the river mouth and were pulled well up on the sand below the village. Everyone crowded around. Two of the canoes carried some birds and fish, but not many. Had the stranger’s presence driven them away?


The stranger wore no ochre. He is not one of The People. His hair was black like the bear and covered his face as well. He looked as tall as Two-Bears’ father, Hunts-with-a-Bow. His vest was leather and very well sewn. His leggings were strange, not leather, and wrapped all around his legs in place of a loincloth. His moccasins were hard leather, not soft like ours.  He was not one of the Naskapi traders from the west, or one of our Miqmaq enemies on the Great River. Everyone asked questions at once. The children were laughing. The young women were looking. The men said nothing. The mothers were frightened that this stranger might be a bad spirit come to steal away the children. Salmon-Eagle and Two-Bears led him up the slope to the Shaputuan house in the village. There was to be a village meeting.




After he lit the sacred fire, and everyone had been fed, including the stranger, Hunts-with-a-Bow gave his report. On a beach on Seabird Island they found two downed men like the stranger. There was much driftwood on the beach, carved wood. They thought some large canoe was wrecked on the rocks during the storm. They found this one barely alive nearby, and fed him and gave him water. He did not speak any words they could understand. He had no weapons, no fire, and no tools, so they brought him back to the village to decide his fate.


The stranger looked very tired and weary. There was some worry in his eyes, but he sat calmly through the meeting. That night he slept in the Shaputuan between his guards Salmon-Eagle and Two-Bears. Their wives wanted their husbands in their mamateeks with the children, but they had a duty to complete.


The next morning the meeting continued. Salmon-Eagle and Two-Bears said the man had caused no trouble in the night. Stone Worker, as oldest man in the village, said he could not remember ever seeing this kind of person before. Hunts-with-a-Bow said we must let the stranger speak on his own behalf, even if we do not understand him. That was only good manners.


Salmon-Eagle and Two-Bears stood the man up and untied the sinew binding his hands. Hunts-with-a-Bow motioned for him to speak. It took some time for the man to understand. When he did start talking he used his arms and hands to make gestures. It was all very entertaining, even though we didn’t understand. Then he did a surprising thing. He started to sing. His voice was very deep, and the song sounded sad, and some people cried. When he was finished he made a motion with his right hand across his face and chest, then sat down between his guards.


The oldest woman, Mist-on-the-Water, then spoke on the stranger’s behalf. She said that because he could not answer any questions, and because he had no weapons, and had not harmed anyone, he should not be harmed. That was good manners. “We are not Miqmaq, who have no manners,” she said in conclusion. After she spoke the men made their decision.


They named him ‘Storm-Singer’. He would not be killed unless he proved to be an enemy, but he could not live in the village. He would be taken to the flat hillock in the marsh. The women would build him a small mamateek, start a fire, and give him a cooking bowl and a week’s food. The men would show him where to find shellfish, and give him one stone knife and one fishing spear. If he lived, he lived. If he left, that was his decision.


He stayed. Soon he built a larger Mamateek, not like ours, and lived among us for six winters. He was allowed to fish and hunt with the other men, and soon learned the language of The People. Snow Owl went to live with him because her husband had been killed by a black bear, and there were no other single men her age. She had a girl child by him, but the baby died after a year. In the seventh year after coming to us he also died. He was buried near his mamateek. Snow Owl moved back to the village and did not remarry. She was childless and twice bitter.


It was decided that the place of Storm-Singer would not be built on by any of our people. The men burned his mamateek. Soon after that two large grey birds with long legs came and nested on the knoll and fed in the swamp. Every year for many nesting seasons they were seen there. We named the marsh after them. Because of these omens we do not let our children play in that swamp.


That is my story.



* * * *











You have mail!



>From: "Campbell" < >

>To: "Marie Allard" <>

>Subject: Boyd’s Cove Date: 15 Jul 2006 21:14:13 +0800



Dr. Allard,


I will phone you on 737-8861 at 1700 Zulu on 17 July Re: Additional archaeology at Boyd Cove from satellite imagery.



Captain Peter Campbell,

16 Wing


The Canadian Forces School of Aerospace Technology and Engineering



* *




“Dr. Allard here.”


“Hello, Dr. Allard. This is Captain Peter Campbell. My uncle is Dr. James Campbell, your field assistant during 1975-1979. I believe you were Marie Letourneau then.”


“Yes, Captain, I remember Jim well. How is he? I haven’t seen him since we both attended a conference in Vancouver.”


“He is fine, and still teaching at the University of Manitoba. He sends his regards. In fact it was uncle Jim who suggested I contact you.”


“Fine. What is this about Boyd’s Cove and satellite imagery?”


“I am a training officer at the Canadian Forces School of Aerospace Technology and Engineering at CFBBorden. In training personel in photo interpretation I often use the aerial photographs of Notre Dame Bay as a case study. I especially use Boyd’s Cove before the Memorial University of Newfoundland survey of 1981. Once my students have written up their interpretation of the area I show them the excavation and reconstruction done by your department. Then we discuss why, what, and how they missed features.”


 “Sounds like a good approach to me.”


“One of my recent students has a real eye for topographical anomalies. Half a kilometre northeast of the researched village she spotted another possible site. It looks like the foundation of a single circular dwelling. The oldest topographical maps show a marsh nearby. But since the 1960’s it has been drained and some of the woods cut back, highlighting the features. I would like to send you some photos for comparison.”


“I would like that very much Captain. If it looks promising I’ll ask the people at the Boyd’s Cove Interpretive Centre to do an on-site survey. Would you like me to get back to you about it?”


“Yes, I certainly would.”


“Great. Send me the material, and I’ll get things moving. Thank you very much for the call. And thank your sharp-eyed student also”


“Will do professor.”


“My regards to your uncle Jim, please. Tell him I enjoyed his last journal article on the Slave Lake Cree. Bye.”


“Good bye professor.”


* *








The promised package arrived by post two days later. In the interim, Professor Allard had pulled the university’s own set of aerial surveys of Boyd’s Cove from the archives. The area she had been alerted to was shown in about a third of the photos. But only two photos showed any hint of the circular detail Captain Campbell had alluded to. She hoped that the Air force photos would be more informative. She was not disappointed.


Marie took the package into the laboratory to inspect. There were two sets of aerial photos, and one set of satellite remote sensing printouts. In addition, Captain Campbell had sent along the interpretation written by his sharp-eyed student. She looked at the satellite materials first. There was a definite crescent-shaped substratum a stone outlining an area of about 0.25 of an acre. Inside that was a circular indentation. To one side of the rings was a rectangle of stones perhaps two meters long by one wide. A burial?


Next she turned her attention to the photos. One set contained an aerial survey done by the Canadian Air Force in the late 1920’s.  It showed that the marshy area curved around the flattened moraine. A small gully suggested drainage, either seasonal, or in the distant past a perennial creek. The more recent photos, taken for the 1981 survey, were the same as her copies. All in all, there was sufficient suggestion to warrant a phone call to Boyd’s Cove. Site curator Ray Turner answered her call that afternoon, and they discussed the possibilities at length.


“It lies on the property of Mrs. Sarah Andrews,” he concluded. “Her grandfather, Sean Kelly was a timber mill worker, and the first settler on that bit of land. Sarah’s father, Bill, built a new house there after World War Two. Bill put a submersible pump into the marsh during the 1960’s to irrigate his vegetable crops. That dried the marsh out a bit. Sarah inherited the property when Bill died in 1983. Sarah and her husband Ian have lived there ever since. They’ve been thinning the trees on that little knoll to sell to the mill. I’m sure I can get permission from Ian to do a survey.”

“Thanks Ray. If it looks promising I’ll assign Tommy Sparrowhawk to the site.”


“No problem. I’ll get back to you’ probably middle of next week.”




Her office phone rang. “Allard here.”


“Marie, this is Ray Turner. Start your paperwork with the PAO. This looks like a promising site. How we missed it first time through I don’t know.”


“What did you find?”


“There are definitely the remnants of a mamateek-like construction here. There is also what could be a burial site. The owner’s tree felling has already cleared the whole area. I’d send Sparrowhawk out as soon as the permit is issued by PAO. The Andrews’ have no objection to a dig on that site, as long as we keep out of their potato crop. You can use their logging trail for access, and use our lab for assessing any artefacts.”


“OK. Send me the details on the property, and the owners’ written permission, and I’ll get the application moving. Expect Tommy in three weeks. Bye.”


“Bye, doc.” 


* *


Tommy Sparrowhawk was one of Professor Allard’s current crop of post-graduate students. He was also a full blood Huron from Hamilton. Ontario. Documenting Canada’s First Peoples’ heritage gave him a sense of personal and cultural satisfaction that no amount of western educational overlay could equal. He was also a first-rate field researcher. This trip to Boyd’s Cove fed the fire in his heart.


Professor Allard had given him four working days to survey the site and come up with an excavation plan. The eventual answers to the dig’s questions would determine the value of the find, and whether it would be included in the Boyd’s Cove Beothuk site. Was it pre-Beothuk? Was it contemporaneous with the Boyd’s Cove site? Was it part of a larger complex?


As he drove, Tommy reviewed the search criteria that had uncovered the Boyd’s Cove Beothuk site: Ideal locations would have a good beach on which to draw up canoes, a nearby source of fresh water, protection from winds and waves, and a close proximity to resources. The site he was being sent to did not really meet these criteria. It didn’t have direct access to a beach, being half a kilometre inland from Boyd’s Cove. It wasn’t located on the riverbank; but was surrounded by a former swamp that drained into the river at one time. Unless there had once been a spring in the area, then the swamp water would not have been potable. It seemed an unlikely spot for an extension of the village.


Sarah and Ian Andrews were waiting with a cup of coffee and some scones when Sparrowhawk pulled his 4WD into their dooryard.


* * *


With assistance from curator Ray Turner, Tom was able to do a preliminary survey in three days. He recorded the topographical data in detail, then pegged out the areas he felt would be most rewarding. The digitalised information was emailed to Dr. Allard, with a request for ‘troops’ for a two-week dig.


While the Provincial Archaeology Office in St. John’s processed the application, professor Allard had selected a small team of students to send up to Boyd’s Cove. With a little coaxing from Dr. Allard, the PAO expedited the application, giving the team a few weeks dig before classes resumed in September.


Tom Sparrowhawk was site leader, with Ray Turner handling logistics. Several volunteers from the Boyd’s Cove centre also joined in. The refuse dump and low stonewall were uncovered first. The wall turned out to be roughly 0.5 meters high and wide overall; circular, with the opening two meters wide, and facing the main village several hundred meters away. The refuse pit held no man-made objects, while the tool marks on the bones were consistent with those found at the Beothuk level at Boyd’s Cove. Of the dwelling, once excavated, only the circumference, dirt floor, central stone hearth and postholes were discernable. A fire had obviously consumed the dwelling at some stage, leaving nothing but a layer of ash and charcoal. Unlike the Beothuk mamateeks, this dwelling’s posts had been perpendicular, and spaced differently, suggesting a completely different design to the local norm. The hearth was sunken and not raised, as in the Beothuk camp. All of that was puzzle enough.


The burial would be more problematical. The stones were carefully removed and numbered. No tool marks were discovered, though it was felt that the site had been disturbed at some stage, as weathering on the rocks was inconsistent near the skull. The second anomaly was more puzzling still, but quickly explained. A Viking Broach was found amongst the bones.


Circular, silver, in a clearly Viking design with three stones, the broach was obviously a plant. Firstly, it showed almost no signs of ageing. Secondly, the jeweller’s marks were visible. It had been made in England by a well-known contemporary reproducer of Viking jewellery. A few questions put to Sarah and Ian Andrews brought to light their speculation that her late father had salted the burial soon after Boyd Cove was uncovered. He had a penchant for moneymaking schemes in his later years. And, they had found the sales receipt among his papers.


The bones in situ were another mater, however. The degree of decay, the traces of wood, and the European-type facial bones suggested the possibility of an early colonist living among, or like, the Beothuk of Boyd’s Cove. Those were reasons enough to send the bones and wood off for carbon-14, dental and DNA testing. At the end of the dig the sites was sealed for the winter. And everyone settled down for the results of the tests. An early colonial date would guarantee at least one more dig, and a survey of the rest of the swamp for other colonial activity.




* * *

[October 21, 2006]



“Goodafternoon, CFBBorden, how may I help you,” asked the operator when Dr. Allard dialled the main base number.


“This is Professor Marie Allard, Memorial University of Newfoundland. Would you please connect me with Captain Peter Campbell at 16 Wing/School of Aerospace Technology and Engineering.”


“Please hold while I connect you.”


Professor Allard hummed along with the canned music while she waited for the connection. “Photo-recon & Interpretation, Campbell here.”


“Marie Allard, Peter; you asked me to get back to you about the Boyd Cove site.”


Dr. Allard, how good of you to call. Did we send you on a wild goose chase, or did you find something I can brag to uncle Jim about?”


“I guess you get some bragging rights on this one, Peter, if you share it with that sharp-eyed student of yours. Please fax me his…”  Captain Campbell interjected “her”…. “her… details and I’ll give her a mention in the journal article we’ll publish next year. I’ll send you a copy and you can have it appended to her CFBuPers file.”


“That all sounds good, professor; but what did you hit?”


“The site appears to be contemporaneous with the main Beotuk level. One dwelling was there, but it and any contents had been burned. There was no occupation of the site above that layer of ash and charcoal. Unique to the site was a dranaige ditch and a circular low wall of stones sourrounding the mamteek’s site.”




“Sorry. A mamateek was a circular Beothuk house. We found a refuse dump, containing clam shells and caribu bones, but no household artifacts. The burial site was the point of interest. A skelleton was buried in the traditional Beotuk manner.”


“Which was?” enquired Campbell.


 “The dead were usually buried in isolated locations. Bodies were wrapped in birch bark and covered with a rock pile. We found traces of birchbark in the grave. Burial places were usually furnished with offerings such as figurines, pendants, and replicas of tools. In this case we found only one object, and it was a fake.”


“A fake! That’s dissapointing.”


“Yes, and no. It seems that the owner of the land salted the burial site with a reproduction Viking broach after we excavated Boyd Cove, and planned to ‘discover’ the ‘first Viking burial in Canada’ site. He died before he could follow through on his scheme. His daughter wasn’t surprised that he’d planned to benefit from a fraud. That left us with the skeletal remains. The skull told us that it wasn’t First Peoples.”


“How so?”


The teeth and shape of the skull. First Peoples have a different dental, cheekbone and brow ridge structures than Europeans. Computerised facial reconstruction proved conclusively that the remains were of a European. Now comes the really interesting part.”


“Saving the best for last are you, professor?”


“You bet! Your uncle Jim will love this when you tell him! But tell him soon, before it makes the CBC and CNN news, please. And very confidentially!”




 “I have the Carbon-14 and DNA reports in my hand as I’m speaking to you. Otherwise I wouldn’t believe it myself. You have to understand that the skeleton was partially decayed. We had to make statistical projections from the remaining long bones. It looks like our friend was about 1.68 metres tall. There were several healed fractures. A male probably aged around 45.”


“A British or French pioneer killed by the Beothuk?”


“No signs of a violent death. And the burial speaks against it also. No, Peter this is much more interesting. And much earlier than colonial days.”




“Yes, the Carbon-14 tests yielded an date of 1400, plus or minus 50 years.”


“But… but that’s before Columbus!”


“And after the Vikings, remember. Western Europeans where fishing for cod and whales on the Grand Banks long before John Cabot officially discovered Newfoundland in 1497.”


“Really? I guess I don’t know our own history very well.”


“But wait, there’s more. We recovered some mitochondrial DNA. This particular fisherman was probably a Basque. The Basques, along with Irish, show the highest frequency of the Y-chromosome DNA haplogroup R1b in Western Europe.”


“You say so, professor; but its all too complicated for me.”


“Sorry,Peter. It just means that genetically, our friend can be traced to a genetic group that always comes from the Basque ethnicity. Legend, rumor, hearsay, and some archaeological and documentary evidence suggests that Basques discovered the Grand Banks by 1372. So, we have a high degree of certainty that our skelton belongs to a Basque fisherman who died around 1400.”

“And that makes him….?”


“Once confirmed, that would make him,” …she paused to gain control of her own excitement…. “the oldest European skeleton ever found in North America!”


* * * *


 The 2007 archeology season found a pair of Sand Hill Cranes nesting on the site. As a protected species, they put a halt to any further investigations.



© Copyright 2018 James Gagiikwe. All rights reserved.

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