Postdoctoral Research

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 home?

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, emplaced?

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 production?

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 2006.  <>

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: Guilford Press.

Lipsitz, George. 1994. Dangerous Crossroads: Popular Music, Postmodernism, and the Poetics of Place. London: Verso. 

McCartney, Andra. 2002. Kitchener Open Ears Soundwalks. Canadian Electroacoustic Community. <>

— . 2004. Sounding Kingston and the Gateway to Lake Ontario. 24 Oct 2006. < o/mccartney/kingston_index.htm>

Payne, Jim. 2007. E-mail to the author. August 29.

Phillips Shea, Diego and Darren Copeland. 2004. Toronto Island Sound Map. 25 Oct 2006. < 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 Ethnomusicology.

Stokes, Martin. 1994. Ethnicity, Identity, and Music: The Musical Construction of Place. Oxford: Berg.

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 51.2: 185-204.