Political Anthropology of TEK in the Canadian Subarctic

Roy C. Dudgeon, M. A.

Winnipeg, Manitoba

Submitted to Crossing Boundaries, the Seventh Conference of the International Association for the Study of Common Property, Vancouver, British Columbia. June 9-14, 1998.

This paper shall present the preliminary findings of my Ph. D. research in anthropology at the University of Manitoba. As a whole, this project is intended to describe and compare the worldviews, as systems of knowledge, of First Nations in the Canadian subarctic to that of public and private development planners, in order to better understand the ongoing disputes between the two. This preliminary paper, however, shall focus more narrowly upon the role which Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK) has played in recent disputes over land use between First Nations peoples and development planners, and the manner in which they have deployed TEK in their presentations to various legal and political bodies. The methodological and theoretical approaches of the paper have been developed in my earlier writings, and are best understood through a description of the same. The methodology which the paper shall deploy was first developed in an earlier manuscript, Common Ground: Ecology & Native American Philosophy, which is currently being revised for resubmission at the request of a major Canadian academic press.

This work illustrates the many similarities linking Native American philosophies with recent ecological philosophies, and their common differences from the modern philosophy of the contemporary Western world. The methodology employed was to directly compare Western philosophical works to the literature, narratives and oratory of Native American peoples since first contact. Thus, rather than turning to ethnographic accounts of Aboriginal philosophies, as so much previous anthropology has done, it turned directly to their own literatures. This allowed for an equitable comparison of the various philosophies considered, since all were accessed in the same manner-through a comparison of primary sources.

The same methodology shall be deployed in the current paper, which shall turn to primary documents in order to reach an understanding of the role which TEK plays in land use disputes. The narratives considered shall include, though not be confined to: 1. recent presentations to the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples (RCAP), which were recorded at the RCAP’s public hearings, and 2. the presentations of the Moose River/James Bay Coalition to the Environmental Assessment Board of Ontario concerning James Bay hydroelectric development. While the primary focus shall be upon the various Cree Nations of the Canadian subarctic, the views of other peoples may also be included. The theoretical framework which shall be deployed in the current paper was most fully developed in my M. A. Thesis, The Pattern Which Connects: Ecology, Anthropology & Postmodernity (York University, 1996). This work developed a theoretical orientation based upon the works of ecological anthropologist, Gregory Bateson, and discussed its significance for contemporary anthropology. Such an eco-holist approach, or postmodern science, is also closely linked to other recent schools of ecological philosophy-such as deep ecology, ecofeminism, and social ecology. Its basic insight is shared with the discipline of ecology itself-that all things are interconnected in living systems. Thus, while the current work shall focus upon the role of TEK in recent political and legal disputes and presentations, it shall not ignore the larger relationships between ideological, social and ecological systems, nor the political relationships between First Nations and development planners, and the implications of each view for ecological relationships and practices.

The objectives of the paper will be threefold, each of which builds upon the previous themes. Firstly, as noted, it shall attempt to illustrate the political role which TEK has played in recent land use disputes between development planners and First Nations peoples in the Canadian subarctic, through an examination of the public presentations made by various Aboriginal groups in order to represent their views to the larger Canadian population. This shall allow for the development of the second theme, which is a comparison of the different approaches to the "management" of common property resources on the part of the two parties. In other words, it shall allow for a comparison of the management approaches suggested by the TEK of Aboriginal groups, with the management approaches of the modern Western techno-economic view, as well as the ecological consequences which have tended to follow from the adoption and practice of each view. This section shall suggest that while TEK has more often than not lead to sustainable management of the commons, the techno-economic view has tended towards a short term, profit oriented approach, which erodes the resource base over a relatively short period of time.

Finally, with this comparison in hand, the paper shall conclude with a brief discussion and critique of "The Tragedy of the Commons," as described by Garrett Hardin. For if, as the case studies shall attempt to illustrate, we must admit both that: 1. Aboriginal and Western peoples have different worldviews which, when enacted in practice, suggest different methods of managing and interacting with the commons, and that, 2. the former practices have tended to be more sustainable, while only the latter have tended to embody the "tragedy" described by Hardin, then his arguments must be reassessed. Thus, the conclusion shall use the case studies outlined above to critique, once again, the short comings of Hardin’s views, and to suggest that the tragedy in question might be more aptly dubbed "the tragedy of capitalism in a commons."

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