Tuesday, February 08, 2011
Eleanor Burke Leacock - Myths of Male Dominance
Leacock's own research was centred on a Canadian tribe called the Montagnais-Naskapi. These were people who, in their hunter-gather past had lived in a "primitive communist" society. What is almost unique about them, is that this lifestyle had been extremely well documented by the Europeans who encountered them. The Montagnais had lived by collected the fruit and berries of their local area, as well as hunting the plentiful game at different times of the year. European traders arrived in the 1600s and began to trade goods, with the Montagnais in exchange for vast quantities of furs - beaver and the like.
This caused a fundamental transformation of Montagnais life. From a society were private property was almost unknown, were decision making was a collective process and status in society was not based on property or any form of economic power, the Montagnais were transformed into a people were private property (in this case the animal traps and the associated areas of rivers / land) formed part of their lives. This introduction of private property changed all the other relationships in their society, as did the cynical and regular interference of Jesuit missionaries. The Jesuits who documented the lives of the indigenous people, also attempted to introduce more European things - like leaders, monogamy, physical beating of children and so on. Prompting one Montagnais to say "You Jesuit's love only your own children, we love all of them".
By the time Leacock was able to live with the Montagnais, a surprising amount of their earlier social relations still existed. She describes how hard she found it to understand the collective decision making process as someone who has only lived in a society with leaders and social hierarchies.
These experiences and the documentary evidence of a people with a completely different set of relations of productions to those we see in the vast majority of the world today shape most essays in this book. Leacock looks at the role of women in Montagnais society - and similar societies around the world, family relations and so on. She also look critically at the ideas of two of the thinkers who have most often dominated this form of discussion for the left - Lewis Morgan and Fredrich Engels.
Collected here is her introduction to Lewis Morgan's classic book of anthropology - Ancient Society. The book itself informed Engels' own work (as well as Marx) in particular, The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State. Leacock wrote a classic introduction to this as well, of which sadly only part is in here.