Eels were life to our people - Graduate Student presentation at Congress for Humanities and Social Sciences   May 01, 2011

On May 31, 2011, Sana Kavanagh (Research Associate with the Institute for Integrative Science & Health at Cape Breton University and also Graduate Student at Dalhousie University) will deliver a presentation entitled "'Eels were life to our people':  traditional ecological knowledge of eels as food, medicine, community, and life among participants in the Mi'kmaq food and ceremonial fishery in Unama'ki (Cape Breton), Nova Scotia, Canada" (see abstract below).  Her presentation is for the Environmental Studies Association of Canada (ESAC), which is meeting within the 2011 Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences at the University of New Brunswick and St. Thomas University in Fredericton, NB.  The ESAC conference theme is "People, Places and Sustainability:  Exploring Ideas Across Communities" and it will focus on creating a broadening understanding of what is meant by the term 'sustainability' and the factors that contribute to its realization.

ABSTRACT:  Eels are an important part of the Mi’kmaq traditional food system, known as netukulimk or the traditional way of life.  In this presentation, I explore a key theme, “eels were life to our people”, which emerged through qualitative analysis of semi-structured in-depth interviews with 12 community-recommended eel fishery participants, from 4 Mi’kmaq communities in Unama’ki (Cape Breton), Nova Scotia.  Using quotations and thick description, I try to portray the unique cultural perspective on interdependence and sustainability among these participants and how they link their ecological knowledge, practices, and values.  Traditional ecological knowledge of eels encompasses knowledge, practices, and beliefs related to catching, preparing, and eating eels.   Eels are consumed as food and medicine, and valued as a survival food, staple food, and special food.  Participants also explain that eel food brings the community together when it is shared.  Food is central to ecological thought among participants because they depend on eels for food and thus life and so they perceive themselves to be interdependent with the environment.  For some participants and elders, the traditional way of life is valuable because it reminds a person of his or her interdependence with the environment through food.  Therefore, participants value respectful and reciprocal activities which allow them to show reverence for the eel as a source of life while harvesting, preparing, sharing and consuming eels.  Funding for this research was provided by the Tier 1 Canada Research Chair in Integrative Science, Dr. Cheryl Bartlett [at Cape Breton University].