Fram­ing the past

Canada's History - - EDITOR’S NOTE -

In the late 1800s, white pho­tog­ra­phers re­al­ized that there was money to be made by head­ing into the Old West to pho­to­graph the rapidly fad­ing world of “cow­boys and In­di­ans.”

At the time, In­dige­nous peo­ples of the United States were be­ing forced from their tra­di­tional lands at gun­point and ex­iled to re­mote re­serves to be­gin the process of “be­com­ing civ­i­lized.”

Some pho­tog­ra­phers were sym­pa­thetic to the plight of First Peo­ples, but oth­ers saw their sub­jects as com­modi­ties to be ex­ploited.

To­day, the thou­sands of pho­tos taken dur­ing this era of­fer a skewed vi­sion of the past. The vast ma­jor­ity of im­ages were shot by white pho­tog­ra­phers who framed the dis­cus­sion and cropped out the in­con­ve­nient truth. The sub­jects of these pho­tos were of­ten told to pose with props, such as tom­a­hawks and peace pipes, to en­hance their “In­di­an­ness.”

The im­ages re­in­forced white stereo­types of the “van­ish­ing In­dian” while turn­ing a blind eye to the plight of dis­pos­sessed Abo­rig­i­nal peo­ples.

In this is­sue, we fea­ture a story on one of the most fa­mous — and most pho­tographed — In­dige­nous lead­ers of the nine­teenth cen­tury: Sit­ting Bull.

The Lakota Sioux war chief fa­mously de­feated Amer­i­can Lieu­tenant Colonel Ge­orge Custer’s 7th Cav­alry Reg­i­ment at the Battle of the Greasy Grass ( also known as the Battle of the Lit­tle Bighorn or Custer’s Last Stand) in 1876. The con­flict was a sem­i­nal mo­ment in Amer­i­can his­tory — but it was a cru­cial mo­ment in Cana­dian his­tory, too.

Af­ter the fight, Sit­ting Bull and his fol­low­ers sought refuge in Canada, ig­nit­ing an in­tense de­bate be­tween Canada and the United States over bor­der sovereignty and trans­bor­der In­dige­nous rights.

In se­lect­ing our cover image, as well as the in­te­rior fea­ture pho­tos, we needed to con­sider the trou­bling legacy of nine­teen­th­cen­tury pho­tog­ra­phy of In­dige­nous peo­ples.

The com­mer­cial­iza­tion, cul­tural ap­pro­pri­a­tion and out­right ex­ploita­tion in­volved in pro­duc­ing some of the pho­tos are sub­jects of de­bate in aca­demic and In­dige­nous com­mu­ni­ties.

For guid­ance, I spoke to Mark Hol­man, a mem­ber of the Stand­ing Rock reser­va­tion in South Dakota. Stand­ing Rock is the ances­tral home of Sit­ting Bull as well as his burial place.

Hol­man is the library di­rec­tor and photo archivist for Sit­ting Bull Col­lege, which is op­er­ated by the Lakota/Dakota Na­tion and is home to the largest col­lec­tion of Sit­ting Bull pho­tos in the world.

Hol­man says the Lakota/Dakota are cer­tainly aware of the prob­lem­atic na­ture of early pho­tos of In­dige­nous peo­ples.

“They un­der­stand the con­text,” he said. “They are prod­ucts of the his­tory at the time, col­o­niz­ers com­ing in and ba­si­cally tak­ing what they wanted from Sit­ting Bull and the Lakota peo­ple, and defin­ing it in the col­o­niz­ers’ way.”

De­spite this, these pho­tos are still val­ued for what they sym­bol­ize.

“The pho­tos are an in­spi­ra­tion,” Hol­man said. “Sit­ting Bull is a sym­bol of that time, when ... the Lakota/Dakota Na­tion was up against the United States, fight­ing for land and life. He’s a sym­bol of that re­sis­tance. A guy who stood up and said no!”

On an­other level, these pho­tos also rep­re­sent fam­ily: cousins, brothers and sis­ters, aunts and un­cles, grand­par­ents. As such, they are to be cher­ished and shared.

“Peo­ple are glad that some­body has taken these pic­tures, no mat­ter the con­text,” Hol­man said. “Peo­ple are just happy to get a photo of their an­ces­tor.”

For Canada’s His­tory, these pri­mary-source ma­te­ri­als of­fer valu­able in­sights into his­tor­i­cal re­la­tion­ships be­tween In­dige­nous and non-In­dige­nous peo­ples. But they need to be treated with sen­si­tiv­ity and con­sid­ered in the con­text of the era in which they were taken.

Hope­fully, these pho­tos will en­cour­age fur­ther di­a­logue and un­der­stand­ing among all Cana­di­ans.

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