Encounters

This week’s book is a relatively recent one, by anthropologist John C. Kennedy.  Published in 2015, Encounters is an academic book, but it’s also fairly accessible, so don’t be too put off by that.  It’s the book to read on its subject, and I was able to understand it, enjoy it, and learn from it, without ever having taken an anthropology course in my life!

Encounters is all about the history of Southeastern Labrador—meaning, as Kennedy explains, the area between Sandwich Bay (where Cartwright is) and Chateau Bay (a key historical location, roughly at the mouth of the Strait of Belle Isle).  This area, as you may well know, has its own unique history and heritage, quite distinct from that of the Lake Melville area immediately north and west, or the Straits area, immediately south and west.  (Or, I suppose, the Atlantic Ocean, immediately east.)

In some ways, Southeastern Labrador is a very specific topic for such a hefty history book as Encounters (consider that Sean Cadigan covers the whole history of the province in fewer pages, and for that matter Stephen Hawking covers all of time).  On the other hand, Southeastern Labrador is also a very general topic, in the sense that Encounters touches on as many aspects of life as it can, over a time period spanning centuries.  The early chapters provide some high-level overview information by way of introduction, but after that, it’s a deep dive into detail.

Kennedy acknowledges some inevitable limitations preventing the work from being a complete history, but he does draw on 30+ years of his own research, as well as long-standing partnerships with other scholars, and most importantly with the NunatuKavut Community Council.  So there is a lot of information in the book, and what’s there tends to be precise and well-sourced.  The sources are rich in diversity, too, varying from local knowledge to archival documentation to the most recent archaeological discoveries.

Every history book has its own particular interest, and the one in this book is that of the cultural majority currently living in the area’s communities.  The book is really intended to be their history, and the history of their forebears.  It is tied less to the space than to the people, so it does not cover other peoples, such as the Innu, nearly as closely.  But if you are interested in Southeastern Labrador, or in NunatuKavut, then this book certainly deserves a very prominent place among your sources!

For convenience, you can even borrow the ebook from the NLPL—and I find that this is exactly the sort of book that benefits most from having an electronic version.  Using the ebook, you can search for things and flip back and forth very easily, so that you can read only on the topics that particularly pique your interest.  (I confess to not having gone fully cover-to-cover on this one yet!)

Community and sub-regional histories are important parts of so many conversations in Labrador, and they are endlessly engaging to so many people.  (Look no further than 40+ years of avid readership for Them Days magazine for proof of that!)  These conversations, rich as they are on their own, also benefit from occasional academic books, like Encounters, that aim to provide a basis for understanding and reference, by gathering up and presenting the most reliable information they can.  To that end, Encounters is not exactly a book of individual stories, nor at the other end of the spectrum is it really a definitive thesis; rather, its strength is in its variety and its thoroughness, and in Kennedy’s enthusiasm for specific, concrete, cited examples.  Hardly any topic doesn’t make it into the book somewhere.  Did I mention that it is almost 500 pages long?

Kennedy writes in the preface: “My motivation was and remains curiosity; my research continues to seek missing pieces of the puzzle that is Labrador.”

“Curiosity” is a modest word to cover such a sustained, decades-long interest; and to his credit, Kennedy seems especially attuned to the great depth and complexity of Labrador history (far more so than many writers from outside, and even academic ones).  And if Labrador is a puzzle for him, then he must really enjoy those giant Ravensburger boxes with 18,000 pieces…

Be that as it may, I will conclude with two samples from the text, to whet your interest.  First:

This idea (the first sentence, above) was also the basis of the title for Kennedy’s earlier book, People of the Bays and Headlands, published in 1995.  It’s a really neat geographical concept, whose modern definition is credited in endnote #5 to A. Prince Dyke—whose 1968 MA thesis, by the way, also proved extremely valuable to my Labrador and the Census project.

The second sample is a fascinating little tidbit that could make for a great piece of television drama.  There are many stories like this in the book.  Unfortunately, I can’t tell you on which page to find this one, because I snipped it from the ebook, which doesn’t have page numbers!


Student Cheat Sheet

Encounters: An Anthropological History of Southeastern Labrador (2015)

Author. John Kennedy is a cultural anthropologist, originally from the United States, who taught at Memorial from 1973-2004 and now lives in British Columbia.  He first went to Makkovik as a researcher beginning in 1971, and wrote his thesis on that community in 1978 (published by ISER Books as Holding the Line in 1982).  He then began researching southeastern Labrador in 1979, and that research has continued, off and on, ever since.
Summary. Encounters is exactly what its subtitle promises: a thorough sub-regional history.  It focuses especially on the people of NunatuKavut, drawing mainly on ethnological and archival research.
Origin. As an academic book, Encounters is the product of an accumulation of knowledge, perspective, and research findings over many years of study.  Many papers preceded it, as well as a 1995 book, People of the Bays and Headlands.  From 2009-2014, Kennedy was involved in a major, multidisciplinary community-university research project on southeastern Labrador, with NunatuKavut and partner scholars, called Understanding the Past to Build the Future. According to Kennedy, it was archaeologist Marianne Stopp, from that team, who suggested that he write Encounters as an updated version of his 1995 text.
Legacy. Encounters was published too recently for its place in Labrador lore to have been settled, but it has been well-received, and is certainly the most comprehensive history of the sub-region.  Encounters is also an important contribution to a knowledge base of great political significance, given contemporary political conversations about Indigenous identity and land claims in Labrador.

Working on a book report for school?  Here’s how to cite this article:

Mills, Morgon. “Book of the Week: Encounters.” LILA Online. Labrador Institute, 5 July 2020, lilaonline.ca/2020/07/05/encounters/. Accessed [today’s date].

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