Sounds of Contact: Colonial Encounter,
Senses of Place, and Musical Expression in Mi'kmaw Communities
Cape Breton University
Humans interact with their environments in highly complex ways; their
“senses of place” encompass “the experiential and expressive ways
places are known, imagined, yearned for, held, remembered, voiced,
lived, contested, and struggled over; and the multiple ways places are
metonymically and metaphorically tied to identities” (Feld & Basso
1996: 11). Music – sound imbued with meaning – is inextricably linked
to the constitution of place (Stokes 1994; Lipsitz 1994; Feld &
Basso 1996; Leyshon, Matless & Revill 1998; Connell & Gibson
2003). Given that in Mi’kmaw culture ‘place’ references not only a
physical location, but also “a site of knowledge, spirituality, and
togetherness” (Smith 2006), my research questions how colonial
encounter – the struggle over place – finds expression through a
variety of musical genres and how places of encounter become sites of
community knowledge. I am concerned with how music embodies the myriad
responses to encounter, including cultural resistence, incorporation,
syncretism, and maintenance (see Lassiter et al. 2002). Often
postcolonial metanarratives of contact and colonial encounter are
couched in terms of assimilation and cultural loss, denying the
potential for “transfers of knowledge . . . on both sides” (Cruikshank
2005: 9). By studying colonial encounter through the lens of music and
sonic diversity, it becomes clear that colonial encounter is
experienced, remembered, and expressed in locally-specific ways and
that the impacts and results of encounter are equally diverse.
Faced with the challenge of representing types of encounter in
locally-specific ways, I believe the tools of sound-mapping will prove
productive. Following Schafer’s World Soundscape Project (late 1960s),
scholars have pursued soundmaps as a means of linking sound to
landscape and human experience while producing rich multi media
resources (see for example McCartney 2002, 2004; Phillips Shea &
Copeland 2004). As a model and methodology for rethinking and
re-presenting colonial encounter and its sonic impact on musical
expression and senses of place, a soundmap approach will demonstrate
the multiple and sometimes contradictory identities and musical
expressions emerging from encounter. In particular, it will focus
attention on specific places of encounter, such as the residential
school, the church, or the community gathering grounds, and illuminate
how and why encounter occurred, and continues to occur, in these
places. Thus, the study of music and sound in a particular place or
location, will elucidate the nature and degree of contact in First
Nations communities, as well as the way in which these places continue
to exist as sites of interaction. This approach grounds inquiry in
specific locales, illuminating power relations and the nature and
forces of change in sonic environments.
The physical space referenced by the term Mi’kma’ki (traditional
territory of the Mi’kmaq) is one of multiple musical traditions. My
doctoral dissertation, titled “Mi’kmaq and the Making of Aboriginal
Music in Newfoundland: Cultural Networks, Individual Experiences, and
the Construction of Group Identity,” focusses on the history of powwow
and traditional songs in this area, and the way in which the powwow
tradition was brought to Newfoundland Mi’kmaq as part of cultural
(re)vitalization initiatives (mid-1990s). While these genres appear
most prominent in the present, Mi’kmaq community members have also been
active in three other primary areas of musical creation and production:
Christian hymn-singing, fiddle traditions, and contemporary popular
music. Understanding the breadth of musical production emerging
post-contact requires attention to each type, as well as consideration
of how each exists in a place and is constitutive of a place (Casey
1996: 19; see also Wrazen 2007).
Even as (re)vitalization efforts via the genres of powwow and
traditional music are underway in many Mi’kmaw communities,
hymn-singing traditions and adherence to the Catholic faith remain
strong among segments of the population. A recent recording titled
Migmag Rosary (n.d.) is indicative of the continued importance of
Christianity and hymn-singing in communities. While such hymn-singing
traditions can be viewed in terms of conversion and assimilation, their
continued relevance in communities warrants deeper probing to
understand the nuances of encounter. As Lassiter, Ellis and Kotay
(2002) have noted, the seemingly incompatible combination and
co-existence of Native and Christian practices is indicative of a “more
complex encounter in which both sides made concessions” (p. 19).
Diamond’s research notes the different performance styles and functions
of Innu hymn-singing depending on place in which it occurs (1992:
389-92). How might this be true for Mi’kmaq who sing in churches, but
also on powwow grounds, on Chapel Island for St. Anne’s Day, or in the
Other musical expressions of contact include a Mi’kmaw fiddling
tradition, perhaps made most famous by Lee Cremo (see Smith 1994). This
thriving tradition continues to have prominence in many communities, as
evidenced by several recent recordings, such as Mooney’s The Lumber
Jack Reel (n.d) and Vincent Joe’s The Unama’ki Fiddle of Vincent Joe
(2007). Where in a community does the fiddle tradition flourish and how
does the existence of this tradition demonstrate ties between Mi’kmaq
and specific places in Mi’kma’ki? What does it have to say about the
nature of encounter and contact? While the influence of Mi’kmaw fiddle
traditions on other fiddle traditions has not yet been documented, the
repertoire of some non-Native Newfoundland musicians includes a tune
referred to as “MicMac Square Dance.” Oral history indicates that it
was learned from a fiddler in Miawpukek (Conne River); however, the
tune itself has been located in non-Newfoundland sources (Beech 2007;
Payne 2007). Its existence leads one to question the nature of shared
and over-lapping repertoires of fiddlers, as well as the contribution
of Mi’kmaw fiddlers to a broader repertoire. Further, how are both
locally composed and borrowed tunes, such as Cape Breton fiddle tunes,
Finally, Mi’kmaw musicians have also been prolific in the genre of
contemporary popular music, with such groups as J. Hubert Francis &
Eagle Feather, Morning Star, and Medicine Dream, as well as individuals
with full-length albums or singles, such as Sarah Michael and Donna and
Jimmy Augustine. Such music has been shown to express complex and
multiple identities of musicians in the twenty-first century, often
combining both modern and traditional instruments with English and
Mi’kmaq texts, while expressing personal experiences, alternate
histories, and culture-specific narratives and values (for example,
Diamond 2001, 2002; Scales 1999, 2002; Tulk 2003). What does such
popular music tell us about the nature of encounter, or about being in
and of Mi’kma’ki? In which places is popular music performed? How, and
by whom? Community-based recording studios, such as Thunder Spirit
Studio in Elsipogtog, NB, have emerged and play a significant role in
the dissemination of contemporary and traditional musical styles and
repertoires. In what way is the recording studio a place of encounter
and what does it have to say about changing power dynamics in musical
The proposed research in these three areas of Mi’kmaw musical
expression, which complements and builds upon my doctoral study, will
culminate in a book and website focussed on the multiple “sounds of
contact” in Mi’kma’ki, as well as the way in which the sonic
environment changed through the process of encounter. In an effort to
create an interactive resource and make performance traditions more
vibrantly available, music and sound will be linked with historical and
contextual information, interpretive analysis, and related expressive
culture through the interface of a map of Mi’kma’ki that places
histories of encounter in specific locales. In this way an ethnographic
and “ethnosonic” (Getter [n.d.]) resource will be produced and
mobilized for use by communities, educators, and researchers.
Beech, Robin. 2007. E-mail to the author. September 12.
Casey, Edward S. 1996. “How to Get From Space to Place in a Fairly
Short Stretch of Time: Phenomenological Prolegomena.” Senses of Place. Ed. Steven Feld
and Keith H. Basso. Santa Fe: School of American Research Press. 13-52.
Connell, John and Chris Gibson. 2003. Sound
Tracks: Popular Music, Identity, and Place. New York: Routledge.
Cruikshank, Julie. 2005. Do Glaciers
Listen?: Local Knowledge, Colonial Encounters, and Social Imagination.
Vancouver: UBC Press.
Diamond, Beverley. 1992. “Christian Hymns in Eastern Woodlands
Communities: Performance Contexts.” Musical
Repercussions of 1492. Ed. Carol E. Robertson. Washington:
Smithsonian Institution Press. pp. 381-94.
—. 2001. “Re-placing Performance: A Case Study of the Yukon Music Scene
in the Canadian North.” Journal of
Intercultural Studies. 22.2: 211-24.
—. 2002. “Native American Contemporary Music: The Women.” The World of Music. 44.1: 11-39.
Feld, Steven and Keith H. Basso. 1996. “Introduction.” Senses of Place. Ed. Steven Feld
and Keith H. Basso. Santa Fe: School of American Research Press. 3 11.
Getter, Joseph M. [n.d] South Asian
Soundscape Project: Ambience, Music, Industry, Nature. 26 Oct
Lassiter, Eric, Clyde Ellis, and Ralph Kotay. 2002. The Jesus Road: Kiowas, Christianity, and
Indian Hymns. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.
Leyshon, Andrew, David Matless, and George Revill. 1998. The Place of Music. New York:
Lipsitz, George. 1994. Dangerous
Crossroads: Popular Music, Postmodernism, and the Poetics of Place.
McCartney, Andra. 2002. Kitchener
Open Ears Soundwalks. Canadian Electroacoustic Community.
— . 2004. Sounding Kingston and the
Gateway to Lake Ontario. 24 Oct 2006.
Payne, Jim. 2007. E-mail to the author. August 29.
Phillips Shea, Diego and Darren Copeland. 2004. Toronto Island Sound Map. 25 Oct
2006. <http://www.yorku.ca/dws/tism/TISM s.html>
Plowman, Will. 2002. India
Soundscape Project. 28 Oct 2006.
Scales, Christopher A. 2002. “The Politics and Aesthetics of Recording:
A Comparative Canadian Case Study of Powwow and Contemporary Native
American Music.” The World of Music
44, no. 1: 41-59.
—. 1999. “First Nations Popular Music in Canada.” Canadian University Music Review 19,
no. 2: 94-101.
Smith, Gordon E. 1994. “Lee Cremo: Narratives About a Micmac Fiddler.” Canadian Music: Issues of Hegemony and
Identity. Ed. Beverley Diamond and Robert Witmer.
— . 2006. “Voicing Spirits: Music as Religious and Social Practice in a
Mi’kmaq Church.” Unpublished conference paper, Society for
Stokes, Martin. 1994. Ethnicity,
Identity, and Music: The Musical Construction of Place. Oxford:
Tulk, Janice Esther. 2003. Medicine Dream: Contemporary Native Music
and Issues of Identity. MA Thesis. University of Alberta.
Wrazen, Louise. 2007. “Relocating the Tatras: Place and Music in Gorale
Identity and Imagination.” Ethnomusicology