Reproducing Reciprocity or Fostering Hegemony? Cree and Whitemen's Views of Contemporary James Bay Cree Society and Economy

Harvey A. Feit, Prof.
Dept. of Anthropology, McMaster University, Hamilton, ON, Canada

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

A few years ago I published a paper on the impacts of cash and commoditisation on James Bay Cree society and culture, and on the process of social reproduction in the context of the subsidization of hunting and the diversification of productive activities in Cree society. An increase in the demand for access to land, along with the payment of benefits to individuals or nuclear families, created conditions in which it has been thought likely that reductions in social reciprocity and mutual aid, and increases in inequalities and exploitation, would occur. I therefore examined five questions: 1) whether access to hunting territories became more restricted, or more monetized following the changes to social benefits; 2) whether social groups were altered in their composition; 3) whether conservation of wildlife resources was compromised; 4) whether exchanges of food were reduced; and, 5) whether inequalities among hunters increased? Overall I found no evidence that the potential for commensal group autonomy generally limited invitations and access to territories in new ways, or increased the acceptability of monetized access, or led to major changes in group composition, or reduced the viability of game populations, or that it led to any general abandonment of harvesting effort, or to reduced commitments to producing food for exchange (see Feit, 1991).

In this paper I examine whether the development of complex political and bureaucratic structures in response to self-governance and self-administration have led to the emergence of a Cree society in which hunting, subsistence, kinship, reciprocity and egalitarianism are not only changing but marginalized, or whether they are still central values and practices of daily life. For example, the implicit view of governments today is that Cree society is now composed of three distinct groups and two ways of life. One socio-economy is traditional and unchanging, practiced by the minority who are intensive hunters, and one is modernizing and developing, characterizing an elite of Cree administrators and by a more populous, but largely unemployed, youth. The latter sectors cling only in words to being different from other Canadians and Quebecers in this view. This is used as a powerful argument against Cree opposition to unregulated developments on their lands, and to counter their mobilization of public support in their efforts to limit or regulate such developments.

I think that Cree society is now no longer as homogeneous as it was, but hypothesize that sectors cannot be fully bounded, and that important linkages cross-cut the multiplicity of bases of authority and power within contemporary Cree society. In the summer of 1997, I worked with a team of Cree researchers to gather information on the participation of diverse Cree in hunting and land based activities, on their wildlife harvests, on the social linkages being reproduced in the more diverse context, and on work and income patterns. Extensive qualitative information on perceptions of both hunting and the need for job creation were recorded.

This paper willpresent the initial results of that research. On the basis of preliminary impressions from the analyses currently underway as this abstract is being written, I will examine the suggestions that: 1)hunting activities are very widely valued and participated in, but in very diverse patterns of land use and social affiliation; 2) that game harvest levels do not vary as much as might be expected among people with different patterns of involvement in wage labor and living on the land; 3) that even though the most intensive hunters' harvests are more modest than in the past, their land and game management skills are in greater demand as the number of hunters increases and the commercial transformation of the land grows - primarily under industrial exploitation; 4) the practical knowledge of the most intensive hunters,as well as the legitimacy of their claim to act in ways that protects the land and wildlife, are in greater demand as Cree political leaders must enter into detailed negotiations with developers and governments; 5) while youth aspire to the levels of autonomy and skill which the most intensive hunters epitomize, only a minority of youth are currently achieving their goals; 6) each of these areas of change is expressed in a multiplicity of sub-texts in daily discourses which assert both the dangers of loss and the practical means of reaffirmation as well as of new practices aimed at exploring enhanced community autonomy.