PhD Dissertation

"Our Strength is Ourselves": Identity, Status, and Cultural Revitalization Among the Mi'kmaq in Newfoundland

Memorial University of Newfoundland


Mi’kmaq in the province of Newfoundland and Labrador are currently divided in terms of status under the Indian Act, a division which has had a significant and lasting impact on the sense of a Mi’kmaw community in the province. Through two case studies, this dissertation investigates differences in the practice of musical culture as a result of the status/non-status divide and questions what the localization strategies of each group can tell us about notions of identity, indigeneity, and community. It examines how Mi’kmaq in Newfoundland acknowledge, create, negotiate, embody, enact, and maintain a sense Mi’kmaw identity and community through the localization of “pan-Indian” powwow culture.

The first case study focusses on a community of status Mi’kmaq in the province, located in Miawpukek, and encompasses the localization of powwow as curriculum in the band-run Se’t A’newey School, musical expression of the local drum group Sipu’ji’j Drummers, and annual community event. The second case study focusses on non-status Mi’kmaq in the province, specifically the drum group at the St. John’s Native Friendship Centre. Musically, these two contexts display several differences, particularly in terms of the repertoire each performs (one “traditional” Mi’kmaq, the other northern powwow) and the singing style that is used. Related extra-musical elements, such as cultural dress, also display distinct approaches to participation in powwow as a representation of identity. However, in both case studies, similarities emerge in the use of recording technology as a didactic tool, the egalitarian structure of the drum, and the subversion (at times) of gender roles asserted as part of the powwow tradition.

Comparative analysis of the two case studies at the centre of this dissertation  demonstrates different strategies for the localization of powwow. Three primary means of localization emerge: 1) incorporating pre-existing Mi’kmaw or local songs (such as I’ko) and dance genres (such as Ko’jua) into the structure of the powwow, sometimes transposing them for different instrumentation (powwow drum) or singing style (northern), and sometimes not; 2) inscribing borrowed powwow traditions with local or Nation-specific meaning through the embellishment of regalia, the use of local singing style or language, and discourse that emphasizes tradition or “the Mi’kmaw way”; and 3) explicitly referencing or implicitly performing local histories. At the same time that powwow may be localized to assert a Nation-specific identity, however, it may also be used to express a more personal identity, or even one broadly constructed as indigenous.

The diversity and contradiction present in the performance of identity, as well as the ethnic simultaneity experienced by mixed-blood, non-status individuals in this study, would seem to suggest that theoretical lenses that emphasize diversity and connectivity, such as music scenes, would allow one to move past homogeneous notions of community or singular constructions of ethnicity. However, it is shown that the way in which individuals speak about their experiences, indeed the reasons for their engagement in cultural pursuits, is specifically referring to community-building practices.

This study, grounded in binary structures of status and non-status, rural and urban, focusses on two ways of knowing and two ways of being Mi’kmaq in Newfoundland, a doubleness that finds expression in the Mi’kmaw double-curve motif. These ways of knowing and being are connected and overlap in many ways while coexisting. They nuance the commonly recounted histories of encounter, hidden heritages, and revitalization in the province, and insist that identity be understood as multiple, as simultaneities.


Chapter One: Introduction – Newfoundland’s Union with Canada and its Lasting Impact on Ktaqmkuk Mi’kmaq

Chapter Two: Mi’kmaw Music in Newfoundland: Issues of History and Contemporary Practice

Chapter Three: (Re-)Introducing Mi’kmaw Music: Learning, Sharing, and Expressing  Culture On the Rez

Chapter Four: Making Powwow Local: Miawpukek’s Community Drum and Powwow

Chapter Five: Mi’kmaw Powwows: Music, Dance, and Regalia Styles    In Miawpukek

Chapter Six: Creating an Urban Community: Learning, Sharing and Expressing Culture Off the Rez

Chapter Seven: Making Powwow Local: Sounding Diversity Through A Friendship Centre Drum Group

Chapter Eight: Conclusion – Localizing the ‘Pan-Indian’ Powwow On and Off the Rez