There has been much interest in “netukulimk” in recent years, even more as the Mi’kmaq assert their Treaty rights to a “moderate livelihood” fishery, as affirmed by the 1999 Marshall decision.
According to the Unama’ki Institute of Natural Resources (UINR), which is Cape Breton’s Mi’kmaw voice on natural resources and environmental concerns, “Netukulimk is the use of the natural bounty provided by the Creator for the self-support and well-being of the individual and the community,”
“Netukulimk is achieving adequate standards of community nutrition and economic well-being without jeopardizing the integrity, diversity, or productivity of our environment,” explains UNIR. It continues:
As Mi’kmaq we have an inherent right to access and use our resources and we have have a responsibility to use those resources in a sustainable way. The Mi’kmaq way of resource management includes a spiritual element that ties together people, plants, animals, and the environment. UINR’s strength is in our ability to integrate scientific research with Mi’kmaq knowledge acquisition, utilization, and storage.
As the Halifax Examiner reported in Part 2 of its series, “Lobster Fishery at a Crossroads,” in August 2020 the Assembly of Nova Scotia Mi’kmaw Chiefs published an update on the moderate livelihood fishery, which listed 17 principles for a “netukulimk Livelihood Fishery,” four of which are still under review.
In an interview, Sipekne’katik Chief Mike Sack told the Examiner that his Band’s moderate livelihood fishery, which was launched on September 17 in St. Mary’s Bay, was separate from the Netukulimk Livelihood Fishery proposed by the Assembly of Nova Scotia Mi’kmaw Chiefs. The Sipekne’katik is fishing based on the “2019-20 Rights Implementation and Fishery Management Plan,” which the Band developed, and on which the Examiner reported here.
Pictou Landing First Nation, which launched its moderate livelihood fishery in October, calls it the “Netukulimk Livelihood Fisheries.” PLFN posted the management plan for the fishery online, as it did a detailed Policy and Protocol document, which specifies that:
The principle of Netukulimk has been the foundation of sustaining Mi’kmaw families, communities and society since time immemorial.
The implementation of this Mi’kmaq Fisheries Management Plan including all harvesting and marketing activity will be undertaken in a manner that does not compromise, abrogate, or diminish the inherent and Treaty Rights of the Mi’kmaq nation. Accordingly harvesting shall not compromise the viability of individual species for harvesting by future generations.
The 2011 article, “Returning to Netukulimk: Mi’kmaq cultural and spiritual connections with resource stewardship and self-governance,” published in International Indigenous Policy Journal, examined “key moments of colonial assault on netukulimk as a primary means for subordinating and marginalizing the Mi’kmaq,” and “recent developments wherein the Mi’kmaq are working to revitalize the place of netukulimk in treaty-based rights and Mi’kmaq law-ways, particularly within self-governance and resource stewardship initiatives.”
Lead author of that article is Kerry Prosper, an anthropologist, respected Mi’kmaw Elder, and Band Council member from Paqtnkek First Nation. In 2013, he and Martha Stiegman produced a powerful film about netukulimk. 1
Last month, just a week before his 65th birthday, Kerry Prosper spoke with The Halifax Examiner about netukulimk, what it means, and what it means for the Mi’kmaw moderate livelihood fishery. Below are excerpts from that interview, which has been edited for length and clarity.
Halifax Examiner (HE): Can you tell us what “netukulimk” means, and what we [settlers] can learn from Mi’kmaq about sustainable use of the bounty of the world around us?
Kerry Prosper (KP): It’s a really, really old concept, and pretty deep. But we have a disconnect to it, because it’s been so long. And we’re struggling ourselves with the impacts of colonization and re-struggling to regain a connection to our past and the relationship to everything around us. So we, too, have a challenge in going back to that concept and in being able to manage with it, as people may operate outside of that belief because of various things they’ve gone through, whether it’s residential school or things like that, which interfered with their way of thinking and spirituality.
HE: Are there Elders for whom netukulimk is something that is still intact?
KP: We have a lot of Elders in the communities. And when you talk about “intact,” there’s various degrees of experience and knowledge that our Elders carry within the community. As far as history, we went through a real long period of attack on our way of living and lives through these various policies and different things we had to endure. You know, with the church, with the educational system, with the government. So it’s a struggle. But we did go through a resurgence and connection to our culture.
When we look at colonization, the Mi’kmaq were the first ones to go through that [on the continent], and then it eventually worked its way out west. But by that time, a lot of communities retained their culture by going underground and preserving it.
HE: When did the Mi’kmaq start really looking at and reviving their philosophy of netukulimk?
KP: It’s a word that existed for quite a while, and the funny thing about the language is that it is very fluent, and as time goes on, our language changes. Interpreted literally, netukulimk is about hunting and gathering … you’re waiting for a moose and then you’re calling him, and you’re hoping he’ll come and offer himself, to provide you meat to take home. And so people began wondering about that concept and wanted interpretations of as it related to when you’re gathering food for a community, and you’re trying to gather in a way with that understanding that this is a living being; it has a family and it lives within an environment and it coexists with every other form of life that you depend on. The moose depends on everything else around him, and we are a part of that. We try and gather to sustain life and for food, and the necessaries to sustain life back then, and then see how it applies today.
As people hunt and when they are gathering, we want to do so under the concept, netukulimk. One of the little rituals that people practice is offering tobacco and asking for good luck before they go hunting. Whether you’re hunting moose, or you’re looking for berries and you find a patch, you offer tobacco, you give thanks, and you harvest the berries.
The core of why you do that — and the core of understanding of how you are connected to everything — is, I think, kind of like the biological understanding of the nutrient cycle.
It’s a circle, so you can begin anywhere with this circle … a circle never stops. And when we think of creation, it is a circle. There is no beginning. No end. Nothing dies. All it does is change into another form of creation.
As human beings, when we pass on, our flesh is put back to the earth and that organic material is living, and it’s made up of everything that makes up everything on Earth. And it becomes a part of the soil. And then that feeds all the microbes, everything in the soil. And then it feeds the grass and all the plants. And then it feeds on the four-leggeds and two-leggeds and the birds, and then in turn it feeds us. And then we go back to the earth. So when you’re Indigenous and you live on a geographic piece of land for thousands of years, you become spiritually, genetically, physically, traditionally a part of everything. Your spirit lives on in everything. So we’re caught in that cycle.
And it’s through that connection that we pray and ask for help. And if we do things right maybe the spirits will help us. But if we do something wrong, we know there are going to be consequences. And in the old, old days, when you read the history of our shamans, you see their role was righting those wrongs. Back then, the consequences of doing something wrong in our communities were very harsh. If you did something wrong with a moose or a deer or a fish, they would not help you.
And a consequence may have been starvation, like a small famine for three or four months of the year, maybe in the winter where it would really affect the community. And there would be a need for a spiritual intervention to ward off that consequence. These were the roles of the shaman.
Punishment could be that you could be banned from the community, shunned and left to live alone somewhere. And your chances of survival were very slim. Those were the extreme consequences, way back then. The importance of that connection we had to everything is very deep, even to us today.
We as a people struggle with that kind of connection we had to everything, because of what we went through. To me, it’s a real basis of how we have to redevelop our connection to land, how we’re going to develop our own economy, how we’re going to connect our own resource development with that respect. I guess we’re going to struggle with the quality of life that we can sustain, and also what the resource can sustain. It’s a real intricate balance that Western society, along with us, really struggles with, because of our whole global ideology and our whole global competition of resource use, and I guess the whole big mistrust we have with each other, country to country.
HE: In the 2011 article that you wrote about netukulimk, you also spoke about how the federal government could not understand this concept as it applied to a moderate livelihood fishery, and kept trying to pretend that a moderate livelihood fishery was going to be the same as handing out communal commercial fishing licenses to First Nations. You also wrote about how that actually had some negative repercussions on your communities, dividing people. And so I wondered, how can the netukulimk livelihood fishery be applied in a way that the government is going to understand?
KP If you look at the Marshall case and read in the ruling when they talk about “moderate livelihood,” and just as a side remark, you see that one of the chief justices mentioned that the Mi’kmaq are not allowed to accumulate wealth with this moderate livelihood. And he said that’s kind of a good thing that should apply to all fisheries. It’s stated in there. I remember reading it when I was doing my research. And I guess that’s what it’s all about for all of us, I guess. The accumulation of wealth is a very powerful thing, and it’s a direct cost to sustainability and what our resources are able to support. When I look at ourselves as people, we always want something better for our children. You know, I think this generation probably had the best of all things. I think our previous generations had the best of all the resources — the biggest trees, the most trees, the best of the biggest fisheries, and the best of quotas, and everything. And this new generation is going to be really challenged by trying to sustain what we have.
I know we want something better for them, but I don’t think it’s going to be greater wealth, because I don’t know if it’s going to be there. When we look at our young people, a lot of them don’t want to have kids, because they don’t really feel there’s going to be anything there for them.
But I am hoping that young people with young minds have bright ideas, and they are very resilient, and hopefully they can get together and say, “Listen, we’ve got to get together on these things and we’ve got to change our future.”
HE: How do you see the moderate livelihood fisheries developing as the Mi’kmaq exercise their Treaty rights, and what do non-Indigenous people need to know?
KP: When I think of our Treaties and maybe all the Treaties in North America, that whole process of making a Treaty … looking at each Treaty and reading them, and looking at the people that signed them, and looking at all the articles in the Treaty, and trying to look at how they are written, what they mean, back then and how they would apply today. And also the context of when they were made, what was going on at that time? What were we doing? Were we living peacefully? Were we fighting over land? Were we competing for resources?
When you look at the letters and the documentation that show the experiences of the Mi’kmaq during that time, it is quite horrific, what was happening not only to them, but also to the resources.
The Treaty-making process was a very spiritual ceremony, and it involved, most of the time, the sacred pipe and the smoking of that spiritual item. The Creator witnessed that ceremony, and through that witness and through that involvement, it sealed a deal for our total lifetime as people. And it’s something for us, an understanding that we can’t renege on.
Our Treaty partners who signed it don’t understand that. So we’re challenged with staying faithful, trying to react non-violently as we try to implement our Treaties and their recognitions through the court case, and try to develop a moderate livelihood and work our way into what our entitlements are.
But I can only feel maybe the intense fright that people [non-Indigenous fishers] have with the thought of having their livelihoods interfered with …. And I pray that that we find ways of sitting down together and looking at this resource, and really learning how to share, because the Treaty was about peace and friendship. It was about sharing the land and sharing the resources. It was about developing a co-existence and a way of life and a livelihood out of all these resources.
For some reason that I don’t know, the lords of trade and all of those people who saw the great potential of all these resources here on this land, and knew the vast amounts of wealth that could be made, made their way into the politics, into the government, into building the economy, and began to wrestle away our piece of the pie, and developed their own way of life and living, and kind of put the Treaty and their responsibilities aside. As a result, we went 240 some years without Treaty recognition. And through a lawsuit, a court case, 20 years later we’re now trying to implement a ruling and the poor non-Natives are bearing the brunt of not having a chance to understand the Treaties, not having the chance to have governments educate them on them, not having governments implement a curriculum in federal and provincial school systems to educate natives and non-natives on being a Treaty partner and being a signatory of a Treaty, and not preparing everybody for the inevitable — of having to implement a Supreme Court ruling, and not just trying to deny access by interim agreements [communal commercial licences allocated to First Nation communities by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, which bought them back from non-Indigenous fishers].
And [government saying to us], “here’s your temporary solution and that’s it, no more, and now we’re going to go on with it.” And yet people are saying, “it’s about livelihood, it’s not about buying out licences, it’s more than that.”
We certainly have to get together and develop a really good co-operative plan and resource development plan, to really respect one another and kind of ease into this, and put aside our fears and our ignorance and re-educate ourselves, and go on with the future.
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- Much more information about netukulimk and how it relates to Treaty rights to a moderate livelihood fishery and the Marshall decision, is on offer in the highly recommended 2013 film, “Seeking Netukulimk: Mi’kmaq knowledge, culture, capacity and empowerment,” by Martha Stiegman and Kerry Prosper, which is dedicated to Donald Marshall Jr. ↩