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Traplines and Tar Sands: An Ethnographic Analysis of Intersecting Economies in a Subarctic Indigenous Community

Traplines and Tar Sands: An Ethnographic Analysis of Intersecting Economies in a Subarctic Indigenous Community

Indigenous communities within Canada's arctic and sub-arctic regions are increasingly involved in what can be described as 'mixed' economic adaptations. These systems include traditional patterns of resource harvesting, but also incorporate inputs such as cash derived from wages, funds received as social transfers, and income obtained from the sale of locally produced goods derived from harvested resources. Recent ethnographic examinations of contemporary economies in northern hunter-gatherer communities have analyzed elements characteristic of a 'mixed' indigenous economy, such as sharing and exogenous resource allocation, the commoditisation of local resources, and the effects of non-renewable resource development on traditional subsistence practices. Such studies, however, continue to accentuate the centrality of the traditional subsistence economy within ethnographic research, demonstrating a persistence of a priori constructs of analysis within hunter-gatherer studies in regions where activities such as hunting and foraging now intersect with other activities of economic and social significance.

When examined in light of subsistence-centred models of ethnographic analysis, contemporary northern indigenous economies become difficult to categorise, the measures of analysis elusive. In such a context, categories such as 'productive resources' and 'affluence' take on distinctly different meanings; the separation between categories of 'work' and 'leisure' become unclear. Meanwhile, conventional notions within hunter-gatherer studies such as 'mobility' (Sahlins 1972) and 'immediate-return' (Barnard and Woodburn 1988) become highly dynamic, requiring careful consideration of the opportunity costs associated with participation in a multifaceted economic system which is at once tied to traditional patterns of resource use, but which also involves the complex movement of local and exogenous resources and shifting perceptions of economic opportunity.

The aim of my research is to undertake an ethnographic analysis of the relationships between those elements of economic activity that comprise a 'mixed' pattern of economy in Fort Chipewyan Canada, a Cree and Chipewyan community located in N.E. Alberta. The objective of this research is to answer the following question: What are the conceptual and empirical categories that organise, structure and assign meaning to economic activities within a 'mixed' pattern of economy in a sub-Arctic indigenous community?

Due to its prominent role in the expansion of the fur trade into northwestern North America, and its proximity to Canada's largest existing oil development projects in N.E. Alberta, Fort Chipewyan represents an important group of indigenous communities where multiple forms of economy have emerged over centuries along side continuing patterns of traditional subsistence harvesting. The intended outcome of this research will be to derive an ethnographic account of the pattern of 'mixed' economic adaptation within Fort Chipewyan by seeking to inscribe and analyse those conceptual categories which community members themselves construct in order to organise and mediate the intersections of multiple systems of economy and their attendant value systems.

In order to achieve an intepretive understanding of the conceptual and quantitative nature of a mixed pattern of economy in Fort Chipewyan, two interconnected lines of evidence will be developed. First, empirical evidence will be assembled in order to understand what comprises a 'mixed' pattern of economy. A second and complimentary line of evidence will be to distinguish those categories which community members themselves construct in order to organise and assign meaning to the range of economic activities uncovered. The focus will be to uncover and interrogate the ideational concepts and social mechanisms which allow members of the community to reconcile (or indeed to hold in conflict) multiple social and economic roles within coexisting forms of economy. By participating in the lived experience of community members in aspects of the traditional economy, the informal economy, and the industrial wage economy, it is intended that those categories that correspond to the range of economic activities uncovered can be inscribed and analysed. For example, concepts linked to traditional hunting pursuits such as inkoze ("dream-revealed knowledge") among the Chipewyan have been well analysed to explain and describe the mediated relationships between human activity and the natural and meta-physical worlds. It is unclear, however, if corresponding categories have yet been explored which give meaning to other relationships between other realms of activity and, more specifically, between economic activities. Therefore, understanding how economic activities are constructed, how resources are accessed, and how socio-economic roles are assigned value can require, for example, knowledge of how relationships of exchange are constructed, and how categories of kinship and ethnicity are activated.

At issue in this research project is not simply a need to recognise reflexivity, to distinguish the 'cultural dimensions' of economic systems, or even to acknowledge the embeddedness of local economies within larger global systems. Rather, this research aims to contribute to scholarly theoretical praxis by revealing those conceptual categories which give meaning to the range of economic activities operating within contemporary sub-Arctic economies, and which assign value to the multiplicity of social and economic roles within indigenous communities. This research can therefore offer more than just an enhanced description of a contemporary indigenous economy. More importantly, it can contribute to resolving some of the analytical and theoretical debates ongoing within current hunter-gatherer studies by attempting to move theoretical constructs beyond categories of analysis that are aimed solely at explaining diversity within or between forms of hunter-gatherer subsistence.

Support for this research project has been provided by:

  • The Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC)
  • The Cambridge Commonwealth Trust
  • The Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research
  • The Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce YouthVision Graduate Research Award Program
  • The Canadian Centennial Scholarship Fund
  • The Smuts Memorial Fund