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Shananditti, Last of the Beothuk

“A man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for.” —Robert Browning

On election eve 2008, Howard was restless and decided to take a walk. Until that moment, I didn’t know that aunt Phyllis had offered him some of her renowned green tomato chutney or that walking his dog would provide an opportunity to combine those things in one long thoughtful perambulation. Hell, I didn’t even know he had a dog.

Digger lead him to some favorite spots, a wayward walk that could have been accomplished in ten minutes but took more than two hours. Their route went near enough to Saint Joseph-the-Carpenter church for Howard to be lured in by the sounds of choir rehearsal. He and Digger quietly took seats in the last pew and used Gerry Leiden’s work with the choir as background for a musing on the church’s fine proportions and legendary acoustics. Herein lies another of those “plays within the play.”

Until that moment, Gerry Leiden hadn’t existed. But there he was, putting the choir through a rigorous exercise in preparation for the church’s new tradition of “Lessons and Carols” for the Christmas Season. [Traditions have to start somewhere. Why not here? Why not now?] Leiden’s “day job” at the College gave him creative opportunities that could add further richness to the texture of Agincourt. In fact, Saint Joe’s renowned acoustics had been used several times for recording sessions by musicians from as far away as Des Moines.

Howard may be musical; I don’t know. I’m certainly not. So people like Dr. Gerald Leiden are natural outlets for those of us who reach beyond our grasp.

Let me tell you about Shananditti.

Shanawdithit_portrait

Shananditti was the last of her people.

Such a tragic summary statement should be banned categorically from this or any other language. When she died in 1829, many things died with her: folkways, a language, a culture, a point of view. None of these could be replaced; nor did they deserve to be wiped from the Earth. And the alternatives were neither better or worse.

Shananditti—there are at least a half dozen ways to spell her name—was a member of the Beothuk Nation, native inhabitants of Newfoundland. But she was born into the age of European exploration of the so-called New World and the consequent exploitation of what Europeans found here. The Beothuk resisted encroachment of their world. But with their backs to tribes on the Mainland and their faces to the sea, the Beothuk had few alternatives.

The conflict between the Beothuks and Europeans can be found several places on the web. On balance, there were no “good guys” or “bad guys” but there were surely winners and losers. The most tender telling can be found in Keith Winter’s 1975 book Shananditti: the Last of the Beothuks.

Winter’s narrative and cast of characters plead for a musical treatment:

[…a work in progress]


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