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This photo shows our field site from the south east. See those ridge lines tipped in snow in the center of the frame? That’s where we are heading this coming week. Most of snow from the winter has melted away, but there will be some left.  This time of year is amazing in the coastal alpine. The upland meadows will be in bloom. The local goats will have moved into their summer range with newborn kids.

Our objective this trip is to harvest enough shed wool for a weaving workshop in the fall.  Goats shed their winter wool starting in late spring into the summer. Picking the wool from bushes, rubbing spots, and along trails is the traditional harvesting method. This trip will focus on harvesting wool. But we will also be collecting DNA samples from goat dung and guard hairs!

Also on the agenda – collecting moss and plant samples.

June 18-20, 2018. Unceded Indigenous lands of the Kanien’kehá:ka Nation 


CICADA is a research centre based at McGill designed to spark collaborative research between universities, First Nations, and NGOs that rests upon rests on “a foundation of relationships of partnered knowledge coproduction with indigenous partners” (Scott 2018). Organizationally CICADA has a set of core research themes, each with a triumvirate of leaders. I was a participant in the recent CICADA Leaders meeting as a co-leader (along with John Galaty and Ismael Vaccaro) of the Customary Tenure and Territorial Rights research axis.

For reference here are the current research and methodological axis:

  • Life project, and relational ontologies.
  • Customary tenure and territorial rights.
  • Livelihoods, food sovereignty and neoliberal growth.
  • Violence, criminalization, and conflict transformation in resource extractive contexts.
  • Community based protected areas and conservation governance.
  • Cultural heritage in conservation and territorial identity.
  • Indigenous rights and inter-legalities.
  • Community mapping.
  • Community video.

The value of these kinds of coordination meetings is always debatable – it costs a lot of time and money and comes with a high carbon footprint. At the same time humans are gregarious creatures and these types of opportunities creates space for sparking novel ideas, effective collaborations, and new constellations of effort. I marvel at the institutional fortitude of the CICADA Director, Colin Scott, and his support team – putting something like this together is a Herculean task. They did an amazing job and, at least from my vantage point, it went smoothly.

The meeting consisted of short presentations by axis leaders and presentations of individual projects followed by longer periods of discussion. The idea behind of these presentations was to explore the range and form of research action to be undertaken by CICADA members, partners, and collaborators. I always feel that when I am able to attend an event like this its rather like a special seminar or advanced workshop. For these kinds of meetings I try to sit back and allow myself to follow the passion of each speaker. While not always successful in setting aside my critiques, I find appreciating the presentations from the presenter’s vantage point is an effective approach to learning. Though some things do require critical reflection and comment.

Of the 30 or so presenters only five were Indigenous (which is actually pretty good for this kind of meeting, normally the ratio would is more like 30:1). At one point during the meeting I commented that by rights at least half of the people in the room should be Indigenous; especially so, given CICADA’s research focus. I understand the difficulty that settler organizations have, irrespective of their good intentions and hard work, finding enough of us to meet the various criteria often imposed. For example, just how many Indigenous faculty members are at McGill, how many are members of McGill’s anthropology department? UBC likes to boast about the 25 (or so) of us they have on faculty: but, out 3500 odd fulltime faculty 25 seems rather paltry. So I get it that there aren’t a lot of us yet on faculty. Just the same, there are things that could be done and one of them would be to start replacing some of the experts on Indigenous people with Indigenous experts. Another would be to make a commitment to ensure 50% of graduate students attached to and funded by CICADA are Indigenous.

Back to the presentations

Some of the presentations were more technical in nature – the community mapping and video sessions, for example. Here the speakers shared a range of things that they had done. We are past the point were mapping and video are novelties, but there is still much to learn through listening and observing other people’s experiences. The usual discussion of whether one should or shouldn’t map or film came up, as did the standard let’s make it better by putting the tools into the hands of the people. For me, these remain useful questions when implementing, but I would rather move beyond to more detailed case-to-case comparisons. Most of us have heard variations of this set of presentations before which led me to wonder if it might be more interesting and useful in the future to do some cross-case comparisons rather than revisiting of individual projects. As a dabbler in digital documentaries I am interested in seeing where things are going in the form as opposed to what we have been doing.

The life project and relation ontologies session is always a challenge for me as I take issue with the entirety of the ontological turn. I’ve recently penned a critique of one variant of the approach, which I term “defensive essentialism” (forthcoming Dialectical Anthropology). It also strikes me as yet another extraction of data from Indigenous communities wherein our ideas, worldviews, and intellectual traditions become yet again the fodder for externally imposed theories and models. That said, I can appreciate the delight in which the presenters take in learning about indigenous ways of life and in how we relate to all our relations.

The most engaging presentation was by Dr. Treena Wasonti:io Delormier, is Kanienke’há:ka (Mohawk) from the Mohawk Territory of Kahnawá:ke and an associate professor at McGill. Her presentation touched on the life course of her research from community health worker (in nutrition) to graduate research with the Cree and then ongoing work linked to her own community. Currently a member of the Centre for Indigenous Peoples’ Nutrition and Environment, she talked about the importance of the wider social connections between colonialism, foodways, and the possibility for health Indigenous futures. It was an inspiring talk that resonated with concerns, hopes, and issues back home on BC’s north coast. I look forward to learning more about her work and projects she is engaged with.

CICADA is a big idea with big intentions, directed by people with big hearts. The approach they take is exemplary. As with all things human there is always room for growth. But the growth that CICADA will spark is one built on a solid foundation, with strong partners, and individuals dedicated to putting their words into action.

June 18, 2018. Unceded Indigenous lands of the Kanien’kehá:ka Nation 


Tenure and territorial rights are fundamental material conditions for all societies.

Our focus on Indigenous communities necessitates examination of colonial processes, which quite bluntly are capitalist processes pure and simple. By this I mean that for the last several centuries the underlying fundamental driver of global and regional economies has been the capitalist mode of production. Colonialism, the notion of one nation (or similar group) occupying the territories of another, has been and continues to be, an intrinsic part of the mechanisms of the capitalist mode of production.   I would argue, and submit that the material evidence supports this contention, that there is no colonialism separate from capitalism in the context of today’s indigenous peoples.

Tenure: notions of property – control/transmission, use, access – authority and jurisdiction. Tenure here can be thought of a process of property making – in the sense that these are the social and cultural rules whereby people structure relations to land and water domains. Within many kin ordered societies landed property is not alienable from the rights/property holding group. One of the key features of the capitalist system has been the attempts to transform property into an alienable commodity that is severed from relations with social groups. Comparative studies of this process and Indigenous responses would be a productive avenue to explore through this axis.

Territorial Rights – extent to which rights extend geographically. It would seem that scaling up in an additive sense from social holdings of kin groups leads directly to the territorial extent of an Indigenous people. But here is another key domain wherein the expansion of capitalist relations of production and the accompanying colonization of Indigenous territories have transformed any simply extension of tenure to territory within Indigenous communities. The intrusion of capitalist relations of production, combined with the superstructural legal frameworks criminalizing Indigenous practices, has had a profound effect on re-spatializing Indigenous territories in ways that blend customary with capitalist perceptions of territories. This has led to conflicts within and between Indigenous peoples and between the encapsulating colonial nation states and Indigenous polities.

Anthropological research on indigenous tenure and territorial rights has tended toward an ahistorical approach. This is not to say that history is not considered, but it is typically framed as a history of encroachment of the settler into the Indigenous spaces (history is indeed some part encroachment) in which Indigenous spaces and practices are resented as timeless essentialized entities. Much such anthropological work proceeds by interviewing contemporary community, constructing a model of what was, and then asserting that this is the way it always has been (even as noting the encroachment of colonialism).

There is a flip side to this – the colonialist narrative that suggests there has been so much change that the discontinuity renders contemporary Indigenous survivors alienated from our pasts in ways that, legally at least, dispossess us from our ancestral rights and title. Both of these naïve views are problematic and require turning a blind eye to empirical evidence that complicates the production of easy narratives.

Let’s consider an example from the north coast of BC. Three first nations: Haisla, Allied Tsimshian Tribes, and Gitxaała (for a more detailed treatment see People of the Saltwater, 2016). Each nation experienced the insinuation of capitalism into their shared regional economies similarly. However, the local outcomes and implications varied in accord with local specificities.

Haisla: This was a region initially ignored by capitalist extraction in significant ways until the mid twentieth century. Haisla community members participated as labourers in the forest and fisheries industries, but capitalism’s major foray into this region was with the establishment of a aluminum smelter that took advantage of cheap hydro electric power to transform Australian bauxite into aluminum for manufacture into commodities produced elsewhere.

Allied Tsimshian Tribes – their main economic territories were salmon rich tributaries along the Skeena River. Here they found themselves in direct competition with the capitalist salmon canning industry. Drawing upon the legal exclusions that pre-empted the commercial rights of the Allied Tribes, they found them selves displaced from their traditional territories that had been the economic backbone of their chiefly economy. As a consequence they become integrated into the industrial commercial fishery at a high level. This had implications for the functioning of their internal political system as at the same time as the economic power base to the chiefly classes was being undercut the original ten individual village polities that pre-existed Allied Tribes collapsed as political entities and the people coalesced around the Hudson Bay trading post at Fort Simpson.

Gitxaała amongst all the Tsimshianic villages was the only one to not face a displacement out of their territory. The chiefly class in Gitxaała had their territories based around coastal sockeye creeks. These were smaller, less productive (in comparison to the Skeena River) and thus of less interest to the capitalist canners. Here Gitxaała chiefs maintained formal and economic control over these sites as productive fisheries until well into the 1960s. Unlike the other chiefly groups (who lost their economic base, in terms of  the Allied Tsimshian Tribes or had an economic base that wasn’t valourized under capitalism, in terms of the Haisla) Gitxaała’s chiefs maintained their economic power in tandem with their customary authority.

In each of this cases similar notions of tenure and territoriality existed at the commencement of the colonial period, yet the ways in which the insinuation of capitalism into this region occurred was shaped by the micro-specificities of each case.

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