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Cape Breton Island Culture: The Mi’kmaq Essay (Book Review)


Imagine that you have just inherited an ancestral land which has been passed down from one generation to another for hundreds of years. Also, your ancestors have entirely relied on this ancestral land for their subsistence all these years.

How would you feel if a stranger comes and claim ownership of this land and asks you to leave? This is exactly how the Mi’kmaq in Cape Breton Island felt when their only means of survival was threatened.

Parnaby observes that the Mi’kmaq were “a small, extremely poor, and politically marginalized population… they were wretched… desperate… and miserable” (75).

Andrew Parnaby’s The Cultural Economy of Survival: The Mi’kmaq of Cape Breton in the Mid-19th Century is one of the writings on the Mi’kmaq history that explores the coexistence between economic adjustment, native culture, and indigenous-newcomer experiences.

Similarly, other scholars have written several articles on the Mi’kmaq history between the 18th and 19th centuries. For example, an article written by William Wicken demonstrates the significance of farming to the native Mi’kmaq residing in Nova Scotia (Parnaby 74).

Parnaby observes that the colonial government highly politicized agricultural activities in Breton Island. In the late 18th century, the colonial government argued that the Mi’kmaq could only be civilized if they discarded their “original roving practices” in favor of farming (Parnaby 75).

The colonialists’ fascination with the natives’ roving ways and the burning desire to render Mi’kmaq inactive, underlined the colonialists’ efforts to isolate the natives from their ancestral lands (Parnaby 75).

Parnaby asserts that this ideology (propagated by the British settlers) was based on John Locke’s “labor theory of property” (Parnaby 76).

Accordingly, the colonial government claimed that the natives (Mi’kmaq) utilized their fertile lands inefficiently and therefore deserved to be replaced by more industrious people (white settlers).

This ideology is aptly captured by Parnaby when he quotes a statement by Abraham Gesner, the Commissioner of Indian Affairs in Nova Scotia, “they must cultivate the land… or accept their inevitable fate” (Parnaby 76).

It is important to note that agriculture was an important activity to the Mi’kmaq residing in Cape Breton during the 1700-1750 periods. For example, the Mi’kmaq practiced farming in addition to gathering, hunting, and fishing at the Malagawatch.

The governor of Fortress Louisbourg observed that the Mi’kmaq people carried out farming productively. For instance, Parnaby states that Madelaine Poujet and Louis Petitpas cultivated wheat and vegetables “of a quality above the ordinary (Parnaby 77).

Whereas the Mi’kmaq residing in the Cape Breton Island practiced farming to sustain their livelihood, the stress originating from white intrusion as well as government policy (as a result of their diminished political clout) was palpable.

Consequently, the Mi’kmaq tried to increase their agricultural activities in most of Cape Breton’s reserves to counter the white encroachment. However, the Mi’kmaq experienced difficulties in their attempt to practice subsistence farming under the prevailing circumstances.

For instance, in the early 19th century, Scottish immigrants started preparing lands, constructing residential houses, erecting fences, cultivating vegetables and grazing animals along the Wagamatcook reserve.

Consequently, by the mid-19th century, large portions of reserve lands were already occupied by the Scottish settlers. Accordingly, this encroachment created intense hostility between the indigenous population and the white settlers (Parnaby 78).

Parnaby also highlights the impact of colonial pressure on the division of labor among the indigenous communities. Before the colonization, the gender parity in terms of labor within the Mi’kmaq society did not exist.

The significance of the labor employed in any economic activity by either gender was considered of equal importance. However, the colonial government introduced the “sex division of labor” within the indigenous community (Parnaby 93).

By the mid to late 19th century, the distinction between the economic roles of Mi’kmaq men and Mi’kmaq women residing in Breton Island was noticeable. For example, the Mi’kmaq men mainly worked as coopers, carpenters, and farmers.

On the other hand, the Mi’kmaq women were mainly engaged in quillwork as well as selling basket.

In other words, the author asserts that the western ideology (introduced by the white settlers) subordinated the economic role of women in the society and promoted the role of Mi’kmaq men as the main source of income for their families (Parnaby 93).

Nevertheless, it is important to mention that Mi’kmaq residing in Breton Island perceived their culture as a weapon that could be deployed against their aggressors. In other words, the Mi’kmaq of Breton Island acknowledged the relevance of their culture and employed it accordingly.

They also knew that the unruly changes introduced by the white settlers posed a serious threat to their culture.

For example, when the Mi’kmaq in Breton Island meandered far from home, prepared for a social event, or cultivated their lands, they expressed how their culture could be revamped and recast as an asset that guaranteed their continued existence under the prevailing unfavorable circumstances (Parnaby 98).

Works Cited

Parnaby, Andrew. “The Cultural Economy of Survival: The Mi’kmaq of Cape Breton in the Mid-19th Century.” Labor/Le Travail 61 (2008): 69-98. Web. 14 Oct. 2012.

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IvyPanda. (2020, March 14). Cape Breton Island Culture: The Mi’kmaq. Retrieved from https://ivypanda.com/essays/cape-breton-island-culture-the-mikmaq/

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"Cape Breton Island Culture: The Mi’kmaq." IvyPanda, 14 Mar. 2020, ivypanda.com/essays/cape-breton-island-culture-the-mikmaq/.

1. IvyPanda. "Cape Breton Island Culture: The Mi’kmaq." March 14, 2020. https://ivypanda.com/essays/cape-breton-island-culture-the-mikmaq/.


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IvyPanda. "Cape Breton Island Culture: The Mi’kmaq." March 14, 2020. https://ivypanda.com/essays/cape-breton-island-culture-the-mikmaq/.

References

IvyPanda. 2020. "Cape Breton Island Culture: The Mi’kmaq." March 14, 2020. https://ivypanda.com/essays/cape-breton-island-culture-the-mikmaq/.

References

IvyPanda. (2020) 'Cape Breton Island Culture: The Mi’kmaq'. 14 March.

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