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'What does fish mean to you?' Ocean Frontier Institute's Research on Values, Perceptions & Knowledge
by Gillian McNaughton, OFI Module I-3 Master's Student
Can you tell me about what fish mean to you? [...] This question would become the entry point into conversations that would delve into both the present and the memories of the speaker’s ancestors, invoking anecdotes and stories about both fishing in praxis and fishing as the embodiment of something much deeper.
Can you tell me about what fish mean to you? Seated around coffee tables or board rooms, my own voice would, several times over the course of 2018-2019, recite this question to a group of Innu Nation members during my fieldtrips to their community of Sheshatshiu, Labrador. Inevitably, silence would follow - perhaps as they weighed the question in their minds - or perhaps as they were choosing how to respond to this stranger they’d just met. Almost every time this question was posed, a discussion in Innu-aimun would take place before being translated by the speakers into English. This question would become the entry point into conversations that would delve into both the present and the memories of the speaker’s ancestors, invoking anecdotes and stories about both fishing in praxis and fishing as the embodiment of something much deeper.
Throughout these conversations, the well-being and autonomy of fish and their habitat would become inextricably linked to that of the Innu. Through memories of residential schools and the exploitation of their traditional territory, Nitassinan, it became apparent that as the Innu began to experience the compounding effects of colonialism, so too did the fish experience profound changes. In the same breath, stories would be shared of residential school trauma and the flooding of land for the development of hydroelectric projects. Enmeshed within the same story would be memories of a childhood spent with their family fishing for food and the impacts of diabetes and cancer now widespread in the community. Participants who admittedly did not care for fishing, said they did so anyway because it made them feel closer to their family and culture.
Fish, in the rivers and lakes of Nitassinan, have remained a component in Innu diets, culture and in their way of life in the face of forced assimilation into settler society and despite colonialism systematically seeking to detach Innu people from their land and traditional practices. Embedded within these traditional practices are Innu values, derived from complex ontologies and epistemologies that connect them to one another, to Nitassinan, and that have governed their existence – and relationships – for millennia.
Innu stories and experiences are at the heart of this research. Indigenous scholar Margaret Kovach (2009) has written that “stories remind us who we are and of our belonging. Stories hold within them knowledge while simultaneously signifying relationships.” As Kwakwaka’wakw scholar Sarah Hunt (2014) has reminded us, this form of relating knowledge is “widely acknowledged as culturally nuanced ways of knowing, produced within networks of relational meaning-making.”
The meaningful inclusion of Innu knowledge and involvement in decision-making processes is a critical priority for the Innu Nation. Following the implementation of their comprehensive land claims agreement, negotiations among the Innu Nation and Federal and Provincial governments will determine the frameworks for future fisheries management on Innu territory. Drawing upon Innu cultural valuation of fish as was shared by the participants of this project through ethnographic fieldwork, this research centers Innu stories, experiences and knowledge surrounding their relations with fish, while assigning accountability to the colonial structures and systems that have interfered with Innu-fish relations. Through doing so, it is hoped that opportunities may be created for meaningful inclusion of Innu knowledge in decision-making opportunities and negotiations that impact their right to self-determination and governance of fish relations within Innu traditional territory.
This research I have been undertaking with the support of OFI within sub-module I-3 during my Master’s research with Memorial University seeks to explore how Innu cultural valuation surrounding fish, has – or can – be mobilized in order to support their cultural needs in relation to fisheries practices. More broadly, it seeks to apply a critical lens to the distribution of decision-making powers present in processes that can result in collisions of values surrounding fish. This research is important because a critical Innu Nation priority for fisheries management is the inclusion of Innu knowledge and involvement in decision-making processes and to maintain and protect Innu rights while preserving traditional relationships between themselves and fish. In an era in which reconciliation and Indigenous resistance has drawn widespread attention and support, there exists emerging interest in supporting co-management systems and Indigenous governance of resources. However, integration of Indigenous cultural valuation of these resources is less clearly understood in practice which can often lead to conflict. This research attempts to fill in a gap that looks at how Innu-fish relations are considered in the larger picture of Indigenous rights, contributing to a body of scholarship surrounding Indigenous rights, title and the application of Indigenous knowledge systems in the management of lands and resources.
Through memories of residential schools and the exploitation of their traditional territory, Nitassinan, it became apparent that as the Innu began to experience the compounding effects
of colonialism, so too did the fish experience profound changes.
Innu stories and experiences are at the heart of this research. [...] The meaningful inclusion
of Innu knowledge and involvement in decision-making processes is a critical priority for
the Innu Nation.
Written by Gillian McNaughton
Gillian McNaughton is a Master’s student in the Geography Department at Memorial University. Funded by the Ocean Frontier Institute, she works in sub-module I-3 researching Indigenous cultural valuation of fisheries. As a lifelong Northwest Territories resident, Gillian’s professional background integrates northern environmental research and monitoring with traditional and local knowledge. For further information on her research, please see her OFI Module I Researcher of the Month feature or contact her at email@example.com.