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  • Reading Shanawdithit’s Drawings: Transcultural texts in the North American colonial world
  • Fiona Polack

In the final months of her life, the Beothuk woman Shanawdithit, or Nancy April as Newfoundland’s white settlers designated her, made a number of drawings at the request of the amateur ethnologist and colonial adventurer William Epps Cormack. Several of them survive, and one is especially intriguing (figure i). On the reverse of a page on which Shanawdithit depicted the “Red Indian’s Devil,” as well as more prosaic subjects such as drinking vessels and spears for killing seals, appears the phrase “Nancy is a bad Girl.” That Cormack wrote these words is virtually certain. Believing Shanawdithit to be one of the final survivors of her tribe, he had her brought to St. John’s in the fall of 1828 and thereafter plied her extensively for information. Virtually all of Shanawdithit’s surviving sketches are augmented with Cormack’s notes, and the words “Nancy is a bad Girl” appear to be in his handwriting.

In its use of Shanawdithit’s settler-bestowed name, seemingly derogatory intent and emphatic diction, Cormack’s phrase evokes the stereotypically contemptuous terms of European colonial discourse.1 As Elleke Boehmer elucidates, such writing is “informed by theories concerning the superiority of European culture.”2 It is possible, however, to interpret Cormack’s statement as constituting something other than just an imperious comment on Shanawdithit’s character. One of his professed aims, for instance, was to teach the Beothuk woman English.3 In light of the metaphysical content of one of the sketches on the reverse, and the sentence’s simple grammar, it is not inconceivable Cormack wrote the sentence to make a pedagogical point. Indeed, if he had been frustrated with Shanawdithit would he have actually bothered recording she was a “bad girl?” Might not speech or gesture have sufficed?

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Figure i.

Sketch VIII—Courtesy The Rooms Corporation of Newfoundland and Labrador, Provincial Museum Division

Nearly two hundred years after their creation, the relationship between Cormack’s inscription and Shanawdithit’s sketch, along with a host of other ambiguous features in the annotated drawings as a collective whole, are difficult to determine. The impediments to understanding them range beyond the now “almost commonplace [understanding that] meaning, value, and knowledge itself [are] unstable, uncertain, and subject to multiple understandings.”4 In this instance, the interpretive process is not aided by the fact that the surviving archive of drawings is incomplete, nor, as I will explore further, that the widely disseminated published versions of the extant sketches often depart from the originals in significant ways. The inaccessibility of Cormack’s privately held personal archive, which may tell us more about the circumstances of the production of the sketches, is also a hindrance.5 Most challengingly of all, if, as Spivak argues, female subaltern voices are hard to discern, Shanawdithit’s perspective can seem especially elusive because of the decimation of her people and the limited surviving information about them.6

Notwithstanding these difficulties, the annotated drawings arguably remain some of the most extraordinary surviving artifacts of the North American colonial era, and deserve far closer scrutiny than they have yet received. Only James Howley, in his “encyclopedic compendium of Beothuk facts”7The Beothucks or Red Indians (1915), and more recently historian Ingeborg Marshall and geographer Matthew Sparke, have addressed them in any detail.8 The sketches are not just important for the ethnographic detail they preserve, despite the fact Howley, Marshall, Reynolds and Pastore have all mined them for information about the Beothuk.9 Nor are they only interesting insofar as some of them present “a native cartographic reinscription of the land.”10 Most importantly, and despite their elusive ambiguities, Shanawdithit’s annotated drawings offer unique insights into the nature of cross-cultural encounters between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples in the Americas during the nineteenth century. The sketches are illuminating products of what Mary Louise Pratt famously called the “contact zone,” those “social spaces where disparate cultures meet, clash, and grapple with each other.”11 The product of a highly flawed and asymmetrically structured collaboration between actors of vastly different backgrounds, the sketches...