Notes on 2d Text for Aboriginal Studies Reading List: Bennett

Section I: Identity

John W. Bennett

John W. Bennett. Northern Plainsmen: Adaptive Strategy and Agrarian Life. Chicago/New York: Aldine/Atherton, 1969. [Google Books limited preview: http://bit.ly/5vmaeW]

With this text, Bennett proposes to extend “the horizons of ecological analysis” by applying ‘cultural ecology’ — the study of how human utilization of nature both influences, and is influenced by, social organization and cultural values. He is of the opinion that only through “relating of cultural patterns to economic needs are processes visible.”[1]

Bennett studied the people of ‘Jasper’ a fictitious name for a real region in rural Saskatchewan, near the American border. He focused on four groups that he found had devised distinctive approaches to living in the area — Cree, ranchers, homesteaders, and Hutterites — to show how within this “ambient community of neighbours,” each group had “established its distinct ecological niche through a process of adaptive adjustment, both in its techniques of production and in its institutional arrangements.” The methodology adopted is eclectic and the concept of adaptation is stressed. He describes adaptation as a behaviour that is manifest in choices, decision-making, and coping strategies, and explains that deciding to choose alternative strategies involves taking into consideration ‘opportunity costs’ — weighing the value of a particular resource in its best “alternative use” [italics in source]. He notes that factors external to the locality affect decision-making and outcomes.[2]

The study makes for a fascinating read, in good part because of Bennett’s talent for turns of phrase when it comes to pithy observations. A number of statements struck me as particularly quotable/footnotable:

Bennett, perhaps because American, discerned a distinctively Canadian “middle-class nicety” in his subjects: “the strong middle-class outlook which characterises Canadian culture – emphasizes the ‘protestant’ virtues: thrift, sobriety, concealment of violence and conflict when it exists, and a genial, neutral manner of behavior.”[3]

He found North American agriculturalists, though conservative enough in their preference for tried and tested strategies, and in according cultural sanction to time-honoured techniques, “are still less inclined in these directions than most of the people called ‘peasants'” — an interesting distinction given Gerhard Ens’ thesis.[4] Bennett avers that “if the term ‘peasant’ means anything, it refers to agriculturalists who for very long periods of time have had to cope with extreme shortages of capital, exploitative practices by landlords and governments that inhibit their opportunities, and weakly developed national economies.”[5] Further, Bennett rejects characterization, by economists and social scientists, of behaviours among people of the Northern Plains, who were non-agrarian or whose agrarian practices seemed arrested, as ‘backward’. Nor does he think the term properly applies to conservative peasants.[6]

“Jewish farmer’s son (Louis Brudy) left, and his non-Jewish friend, [photographed in] Lipton, Saskatchewan,” dated 1916. Source: Louis Rosenberg / Library and Archives Canada / C-027451.

Bennett judged the Great Plains to be a remarkable case of the cultural ‘melting pot’, averring “the ecological constraints required relatively uniform adaptations … and ethnic cultures survived only by conscious policy … as a consequence of exclusion and discrimination…” although he notes that distinctions of difference don’t necessarily show up in written records.[7]

Bennett describes competition and cooperation as ‘two sides of the same coin.’ Cooperation, he notes, “generally refers to strategic activities involving two or more persons, carried out for mutual benefit. Competition refers to separate efforts to accomplish identical goals on the part of two or more persons, in accordance with certain rules.” He points out that the “power in numbers” is an impetus to group formation when it comes to competition over resources. In his view competition brings about an “amorphous sense of group identity,” and conflict ensures group maintenance because people intensify relationships when threatened by cultural change.[8]

A fifth group that receives mention in the text is the Métis. Bennett does not delve deeply into their history, except to point out that the basis of their organization of the buffalo hunt originated with the Plains Cree. By the time of Bennett’s present, he observed the Métis to have become a “non-people’ in the West – at least in the eyes of “eastern politicians out of touch with the history of the old West.”[9]

The greatest insights that Bennett’s approach offers, in my estimation, relate to culture. In bringing the realities of living in the rural West to light, he shows culture to be a human resource that enables survival, informs adaptation, and — where there is competition for access to natural resources — does not lead to homogeneity. Pluralism within the region he studied was workable. As for contests, between rural peoples and the Canadian nation (as imagined by its proponents), Bennett suggests these ought to be regarded as trial and error processes working their way out, not as consciously planned operations.[10] In his view, “Perhaps most essential is an understanding … that most rural north Americans have never rejected involvement in the nation, but have actively sought it as part of their desire to be incorporated in the national entity.”[11]


[1] John W. Bennett, Northern Plainsmen: Adaptive Strategy and Agrarian Life (Chicago/New York: Aldine/Atherton, 1969), v, 3, 10-11.

[2] Ibid., viii, x, 5, 15, 45.

[3] Ibid., 6.

[4] Ibid., 16.

[5] Ibid., 317.

[6] Ibid., 122, see also 104 where he confirms that a farmer can profitably have his land in scattered plots.

[7] Ibid., 57, 65.

[8] Ibid., 70, 85, 157, 168, 186, 225, 277, 289.

[9] Ibid., 54, 148, 151.

[10] Ibid., 321.

[11] Ibid., 276.

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About hallnjean

PhD in Canadian History
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