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  • Indigenous Economies, Theories of Subsistence, and Women:Exploring the Social Economy Model for Indigenous Governance
  • Rauna Kuokkanen (bio)

Profit to non-Natives means money. Profit to Natives means a good life derived from the land and sea, that's what we are all about, that's what this land claims was all about. . . . The land we hold in trust is our wealth. It is the only wealth we could possibly pass on to our children. Good old Mother Earth with all her bounty and rich culture we have adopted from her treasures is our wealth. Without our homelands, we become true paupers.

Antoinnette Helmer

Subsistence is a word that means . . . my way of life.

Moses Toyuku

The significance of traditional economies in indigenous communities goes beyond the economic realm—they are more than just livelihoods providing subsistence and sustenance to individuals or communities. In the words of Simon Brascoupé, "it is the traditional economy, living on the land and with the land, that brings meaning to Aboriginal peoples."1 The centrality of traditional economies to indigenous identity and culture has been noted by numerous other scholars.2 However, today one can detect a certain degree of cynicism when discussing traditional indigenous economies. The continued significance of subsistence economies is either downplayed or dismissed. Many have also internalized the tenet that there are no alternatives (often dubbed as the TINA syndrome) for global capitalism. In his essay "Resistance Is Futile: Aboriginal Peoples Meet the Borg of Capitalism" (2000), for example, [End Page 215] David Newhouse argues that the quest for a better life by Aboriginal people can only take place within capitalism and that Aboriginal people do not want to return to a subsistence economy. However, based on widely contested and somewhat dated development theories that assume that, eventually, modern market economic structures will replace informal, traditional economies and bring prosperity to everybody, Newhouse's analysis of both capitalism and Aboriginal economies remains somewhat one-sided.

There is little doubt that "there are an increasing number of Aboriginal people who want both to participate more fully in the capitalist economy of Canada and to maintain some sense of traditional values and social order." However, analyses that do not explore the complexities involved in processes of reconciling and negotiating between the two but are content with stating that "we simply have no choice" only obscure the resilience of subsistence economies.3

Other versions of TINA include views that, while recognizing the significance of subsistence activities and economic systems, lament the fact that they are no longer viable without addressing the reasons for their dissolution. For example, the previous vice president of Aboriginal Banking at the Bank of Montreal and the chair of the Canadian Council for Aboriginal Business, Ron Jamieson from the Six Nations, notes:

Traditional Aboriginal economies have been decimated over the years. Once thriving economies based on gathering, hunting, fishing, and trade are no longer able to sustain Aboriginal communities. The results have been disastrous. Communities that were once self-sufficient are now ghettoes of despair.4

It is clear that indigenous economies have been decimated in the course of history. Yet it is incorrect to argue that indigenous or subsistence economies are no longer able to sustain indigenous communities. Moreover, not giving a fuller account of the decimation of indigenous economies both past and present conceals the various historical and contemporary processes and conflicts—economic but also social and political—at play in indigenous communities. In order to present a more accurate picture of the state of indigenous economies, one has to consider competing land and resource uses, colonial state regulations and environmental destruction, the diminished or lack of access to traditional territories and resources due to expropriation of lands or intrusion of outsiders. Often [End Page 216] when the destructive effects of the global capitalist economy are being discussed, the focus is on the environment or the social impacts. What has received less attention—and needs to be examined more closely—are the effects of the global market economy on indigenous economies.

Indigenous communities are under increasing pressure to conform to the global market economy in the form of profit-driven development projects such as logging, mining, hydro...


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pp. 215-240
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