Nicole Gombay, Making a Living: Place, Food and Economy in an Inuit Community.
IN THE LAST DECADE or SO, some North Americans have begun to alter dramatically their relationship to the food they eat and those that produce it. Spurred in part by Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma, a wildly popular defence of local and "do it yourself" forms of food production, or Alisa Smith and J.B. Mackinnon's The 100-Mile Diet, many so-called locavores have joined Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) farms, developed community gardening projects, or packed local farmers' markets on Saturday mornings. The motivations that propel the embryonic local food movement are various, for some likely not much more complicated than their desire for extra-fresh rapini. For others, however, the heart of the local food movement lies with resistance to the idea that food is primarily a corporate commodity. Instead, the production and consumption of food represents an affirmation of the bond between farmer and eater, one of the profound building blocks upon which we build human communities and more sensitive relationships to the natural world.
Nicole Gombay's Making a Living addresses the tension between commoditized and communitarian attitudes to food in a very different context: the Inuit community of Puvirnituq on the east coast of Hudson Bay in Nunavik (Inuit territory in northern Quebec). Gombay, a geographer at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand, conducted fieldwork in Puvirnituq on the community's debate over increasing export sales of country food (often as part of government economic development programs), internal trade within the community (primarily sale to non-Inuit or catering companies), and sales to a Hunter Support Program (HSP) designed to help Inuit stay on the land through cash payments for country food. Through formal interviews, conversations and personal observations, Gombay explores the internal friction within Puvirnituq between the idea of food as a conduit for sharing and reaffirming social ties within the community, and a newer notion of hunting as a form of labour that carries potential rewards in the marketplace in the form of access to the cash economy. Using Karl Polanyi's and anthropologist Tim Ingold's work as a theoretical foundation, Gombay begins with the premise that the introduction of market relations has the potential to remove hunting labour from its social context, changing the process of production to merely sustain consumption rather than as the basis for a community's way of life. As market relations become ascendant in a given space and time, the social economy may suffer as the sole purpose of labour becomes cash exchange.
As with many field research projects, Gombay's observations on the complex ways that specific families and individuals adjust to shifting economic circumstances provide nuance to her theoretical foundation. While recognizing that the commodification of food and the labour that produces it may pose a threat to community institutions, Gombay tracks the myriad ways that Inuit hunters have taken control of cash exchange systems as a means to affirm the social value of food sharing. In the case of the HSP, for example, hunters are compensated for fuel and labour while food is distributed from the central warehouse for free. Hence many hunters see the HSP as simply another form of food sharing, with cash payments enabling them to maintain the increasingly expensive proposition of hunting on the land. Other hunters sell part of the fish and game they catch to pay expenses, but also keep a portion for distribution within the community. The adoption of this middle way is not universal: Gombay describes an incident where arctic char had been stolen from the HSP warehouse and then sold for cash. Nonetheless, Gombay writes powerfully and persuasively about how the cash economy paradoxically props up the social economy of sharing in Puvirnituq, arguing that the commodification of food in the community is not a totalizing force but has at least partially been incorporated into the existing matrix of community values. Her book is an extremely valuable account of how one Inuit community has attempted to challenge and accommodate the economic and cultural forces that threaten to overwhelm the social values they accord to food production.
As compelling as Gombay's field observations may be, some aspects of Making a Living could have been more fully developed. The historical overview of government programs that promoted commercialization of food in northern Canada is limited to a very brief four pages that focus narrowly on the issue of social assistance payments, sedentarization and state-driven local economic development initiatives (collection of eiderdown, for instance) in the post World War II period. With a bit more digging, however, Gombay would have discovered that the Canadian government proposed largescale schemes to commercialize food production in northern Canada as early as the 1910s, granting leases to private companies to establish reindeer herds and establishing a Royal Commission in 1919 to study the viability of large-scale reindeer, caribou, and muskox ranching in northern Canada. If large-scale wildlife domestication and ranching never fulfilled its promise in the Canadian North, certainly the wildlife cornmodification in the form of the fur trade has a long history throughout northern Canada. Although Gombay mentions the fur trade, she does not fully explain how this long history of integrating hunting and trapping into the cash economy might bear upon the commercialization of country food she witnessed in a contemporary setting. Indeed, as a reader I was never convinced that the debate over commercializing wildlife was new, as Gombay implies. Certainly I would have liked to learn more about the historical manifestations of the issue during the early fur-trade era.
I also wanted to see more discussion of the author's research methods and design. Gombay includes a brief discussion of the multiple and sometimes contradictory nature of her interview subjects, but very little on how she chose interviewees, how she conducted interviews, how she negotiated her place as an outside researcher in the community, whether she involved local people in the research process (as more than informants), and how she communicated results to the community. If one of the great strengths of Making a Living is Gombay's evocative descriptions of the community, more contextual historical information and greater attentiveness to the research design might have moved the book more firmly beyond the limitations of its local setting.
Nonetheless, Gombay has produced a powerful account of one Inuit community's attempts to reconcile the lure of the cash and wage economy with the community values of food sharing. Making a Living is an accessible and intelligent book that will appeal not only to anthropologists, but also to general readers who are interested in contemporary debates surrounding local versus commodityoriented food production.
Memorial University of Newfoundland
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|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2012|
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