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Remobilizing netukulimk: indigenous cultural and spiritual connections with resource stewardship and fisheries management in Atlantic Canada

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Recent global initiatives such as the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples have brought the issues facing and needs of Indigenous peoples to the forefront of international attention. While underscoring respect for traditional practices, these initiatives have yet to appreciate fully the extent to which Indigenous peoples’ practices engage ways of being, living and believing that encompass a holistic understanding of the relations between humans and all facets of their ecosystems. The Mi’kmaw, a nation of Indigenous peoples in Atlantic Canada, work to recapture and express ancient holistic understandings through their contemporary natural resource management aspirations and practices. In this paper we review key colonial events that have impacted Indigenous relations with settlers and resulted in historical marginalization of the Mi’kmaw from fishery policy and management processes. We provide an overview and discussion of recent developments wherein the Mi’kmaw are working to revitalize the place of netukulimk, a concept that embraces cultural and spiritual connections with resource stewardship, in the exercise of treaty-based rights, particularly within self-governing fisheries management initiatives. We conclude with the core attributes of Two-Eyed Seeing, a methodological framework for collaborative, decolonizing research practices and Indigenous knowledge mobilization strategies. The Mi’kmaw experiences provide insights regarding the challenges and requirements for achieving respect for Indigenous traditional practices and point a way forward for more effective and inclusive stewardship of natural aquatic resources into the future.

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Photo Credit: Kerry Prosper

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Photo Credit: Kerry Prosper

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Photo Credit: PJ Prosper

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  1. Canadian Arctic groups, particularly the Inuit are adopting increasingly collaborative stands regarding the role of the state (Natcher et al. 2012). On the West Coast and in the interior of the country, research alliances are expanding and a variety of resource co-management and stewardship approaches are being assessed (Harris and Millerd 2010; Menzies 2006; Menzies and Butler 2007). Literature detailing developments amongst the Sami, Maori and Indigenous communities in Australia are beyond the scope of this paper.

  2. Linguistically Mi’kmaw are part of the Algonquian language family and geographically part of the Eastern Woodlands cultural designation. Morrison and Wilson (2004) rightly caution that culture areas are generalizations indicated by central tendencies that must not occlude the unique practices of each Indigenous population.

  3. Radiocarbon dating places the age of findings at the Debert Palaeo-Indian site at approximately 10,600 years ago. More recent dating of caribou blood on a spear suggests a revised date of at least 14,000 years ago (Debert Paleo-Indian Site, Parks Canada 2014).

  4. Alexander Denny, Jigap’ten Santeoi Mawa’iomi, Original Communication to Mr. Theo C. Van Boven, Secretary, Human Rights Committee [R. v. Denny (1990)]. On file with author.

  5. Ethnologist Ruth Holmes Whitehead has published several volumes exploring Mi’kmaw legends and stories, which she analyses to distil universal themes of duty, fear, change, revenge, rebirth and power (Whitehead 1991, 1988).

  6. Stephen Cornell defines patterns of incorporation and response in his history of Indian-White relations. He delineates a number of periods, such as the market period, conflict period, reservation period, as so on, and frames them according to the type of economic and political incorporation experienced by indigenous groups (Cornell 1988:14).

  7. Governor Cornwallis arrived in 1749, determined to exact his authority over the Mi’kmaw. Known for his brutality, he offered rewards for killing or taking the scalps of any Mi’kmaw, because they demanded negotiating new settlements rather than just submitting to the British (Paul 2006). Cornwallis empowered himself in a patriarchal role to unilaterally impose British law on the Mi’kmaw without consultation. He ignored Mi’kmaw interpretations of the treaty because he thought the Mi’kmaw were a "savage and barbaric race that needed to be told what the law was, not to participate in its creation" (Wicken 2002:175).

  8. 1914 Requirement that western Aboriginals seek official permission before appearing in Aboriginal “costume” in any public dance, show, exhibition, stampede or pageant.

  9. Indian Act, R.S.C. 1927, c. 98, s. 141.

  10. Historian Bill Wicken (2012) writes eloquently about the treaty consciousness and litigious experiences the parties in this significant case for the Mi’kmaw in his award winning book.

  11. R. v. Simon in [1985] 2 S.C.R. 387. .

  12. The authors of this paper were directly involved with this case. McMillan was Donald Marshall’s spouse and fishing partner. She was charged along with Marshall but her charges were subsequently dropped as she is not of Aboriginal ancestry and the courts saw this as an Aboriginal treaty test case. Prosper was Chief of the Paqtnkek Mi’kmaw Community (formerly known as Afton First Nation) at the time of the incident. Prosper granted Marshall and McMillan permission to fish in the territory. In the years following the Supreme Court decision, Prosper completed a Bachelor of Arts Honours degree under McMillan’s supervision. Upon completion Prosper and McMillan developed a research partnership that continues today.

  13. The Royal Commission found that the “Canadian criminal justice system failed Donald Marshall Jr. at virtually every turn … due in part at least to the fact that Donald Marshall is a Native” (Hickman et al. 1989:1).

  14. The eel fishing case was very public, expensive and lengthy. The charges against Marshall were vigorously pursued by the Crown and defended with great acuity by the team the Mi’kmaw Nation had put in place for the fight. The trial lasted more than forty days over an eighteen-month period. Volumes of documents were presented and interpreted by anthropological and historical experts on both sides. The presence of the press was constant and intrusive into Marshall's public and private domains. The stress of the case weighed heavily upon him emotionally and physically and brought to him a sharp sense of responsibility for its outcome.

  15. R. v. Sparrow (1990) is a very important Supreme court of Canada decision which found that the Musqueam First Nation in British Columbia has an Aboriginal right to fish for food, social and ceremonial purposes and that this right has priority, after conservation, over recreational and commercial harvesting activities.

  16. When interpreting the treaties the Court of Appeal erred in rejecting the use of extrinsic evidence in the absence of ambiguity. Firstly, even in a modern commercial context, extrinsic evidence is available to show that a written document does not include all of the terms of an agreement. Secondly, extrinsic evidence of the historical and cultural context of a treaty may be received even if the treaty document purports to contain all of the terms and even absent any ambiguity on the face of the treaty. Thirdly, where a treaty was concluded orally and afterwards written up by representatives of the Crown, it would be unconscionable for the Crown to ignore the oral terms while relying on the written ones (R. v. Marshall [1999] 3 S.C.R).

  17. Our research team made a short film called Seeking Netukulimk examining the concept of netukulimk after the Marshall decision. This film has been viewed by Department of Fisheries officers in their training programs and screened at more than twenty educational events.


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We thank David Crook, Michael Douglas, Stephen Schnierer, Alison King and the Joint Congress of the Australian Society for Fish Biology and the Australian Society for Limnology for their incredible support for our participation at the 2014 meeting in Darwin. To Damein Bell, Denis Rose and Anthony Davis, many thanks for their generous insights and guidance in our collaborations. To all of the Mi’kmaw participants in our research, and with special remembrance of Donald Marshall and all that he has given, welalioq.

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Correspondence to L. Jane McMillan.

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McMillan, L.J., Prosper, K. Remobilizing netukulimk: indigenous cultural and spiritual connections with resource stewardship and fisheries management in Atlantic Canada. Rev Fish Biol Fisheries 26, 629–647 (2016).

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