Monday, July 6, 2009

Red Ochre

Stephen Eli Harris over at the Newfoundland and Labrador Blogroll named this site as the Blog of the Week for July 5-11, 2009. A blogroll is a collection of themed blogs that can be displayed as a list on your side bar. In this case the theme is our Province and you can check out other sites from Newfoundland and Labrador by scrolling down this page until you spot the NL flag.

Red Ochre is a naturally occurring iron oxide that people around the world have used as a pigment for thousands of years. Newfoundland was no exception. Many outport buildings were painted with an inexpensive, protective coat of red ochre mixed with oil. But the European fishermen weren't the first or the most famous red ochre users in the Province.

The Beothuk covered themselves and all their belongings with red ochre. It had an important spiritual significance to them and helped identify them as a group. Over the thousand or more years that the Beothuk and their ancestors lived on the Island of Newfoundland they shared the shores with Inuit and Innu in the North, Palaeoeskimos and Indians from southern Quebec, the Norse, French, English, Irish, Basque and Mi'kmaq. The first use of the term "Red Indian" was a description of the Beothuk's practice of covering their bodies with Red Ochre. Painting your body to identify that you belong to a particular group is still alive and well.

The caribou grease that the Beothuk mixed with the pigment, would have provided some protection from insects in the summer and help insulate the skin in the winter. Have you ever noticed the folks swimming across the English Channel slathering their skin with grease? Its the same idea.

I collect red ochre from Ochre Pit Cove. I don't know if there is any evidence for aboriginal use of the ochre from this community, but it is a good match for the ochre that you see on Beothuk artifacts. Sometimes its a wonder that the Beothuk covered all of their belongings as well as their bodies with red ochre. But as Lori will attest to, if you have one thing in your house covered in red ochre, then everything in your house is covered in red ochre. Red ochre is one of the most gregarious pigments I've ever come across. Its not hard to tell the days that I'm working with ochre, it leaves a telltale trail on my clothes, doorknobs, and face cloths throughout the house.

When Jowi Taylor was putting together the Six String Nation guitar from bits and pieces of Canadiana, like Gretzky's hockey stick and Trudeau's canoe paddle, he chose Red Ochre from Ochre Pit Cove to represent the Province of Newfoundland and Labrador and stain the maple leaf pick guard. Over the years that stain has been wearing off onto the fingers and picks of the hundreds of musicians across the country who played the guitar. Like I said, if you have red ochre on one thing in your house, you have red ochre on everything in your house.

Photo Credits:
Top, Middle Left: Tim Rast
Middle Right: Leader Post
Bottom: Six String Nation Website

Photo Captions:
Top: Beothuk Combs stained with Red Ochre on display in The Rooms, St. John's
Middle Right: Saskatchewan Roughrider Fans demonstrating Rider Pride through body painting
Middle Left: The cliff at Ochre Pit Cove where I collect my ochre. The scree slope at the bottom of the cliff naturally sorts the ochre into different sized grains.
Bottom: The Six String Nation Guitar, showing the wear on the Ochre Stain. Incidentally, the wood its staining is a piece from James Naismith's childhood home.


  1. I use red ochre or hematite to paint masks and snow goggles. I grind it in a mortar with a pedestal and mix it with olive oil and a little water. I stains the wood and when it is dry I wipe the excess off. Still working on techniqe but so far so good. My Yupik relatives still use it to decorate and to reduce wood rot by mixing it with a mixture of fermented fish eggs and seal oil(I should add egg to my mixture for a better binder). My family eats all the fish eggs and sea mammal oil we are gifted so I don't use them in my paint. The use of red ochre paint goes back to the pre-Russian contact and longer. They also used Kaolin clay for white, iron phosphate for blue and lamp soot for black. Nelson island was the major source for hematite, kaolin and iron phosphate. The material are still in use in the Nelson Island are and are highly valued there.

  2. My recent DNA test revealed me to be Beothuk First

  3. My recent DNA test results are Beothuk I am the first in the data Base. Chief Carol Reynolds Boyce of Beothuk Tribe of NFLD & N.America Reservation Nation


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