Deconstructing Newcomer “History”
From Price Paid: The Fight for First Nations Survival by Bev Sellars. Published by Talonbooks in 2016. Jacinda Mack undertook a project in which she deconstructed a series of photographs of Aboriginal Nuxalk people taken by European settlers in Bella Coola in the 1920s. In this excerpt, she discusses the process. Mack is a member of the Secwepemc and Nuxalk Nations. She lives in Williams Lake, BC.
In the original photo series, the captions gave the full names and titles of only the European men and referred to the Aboriginal people simply as “Bella Coola Indians” or “people in costume.” As a descendant of these people, I understood that names are the biggest form of title and culture a person can hold in that part of the world. These people were efficiently silenced, disgraced, belittled, and dismissed by the omission of meaningful photo captions. I chose to turn the tables in order to make visible the subtext of racism and ethnocentric assumptions.
I found out the names of the Nuxalk people by simply asking around the community where the photos had been taken, and living relatives provided me with the information I asked for, nearly a hundred years later. With this simply acquired information, I recaptioned the original 1920s photos with the Aboriginal names, titles, and villages of our Nuxalk nation. I labelled other photos showing European men (the photographers visiting the Aboriginal community), simply as “White Men” with no further information, despite the significant contributions to the anthropological record that their photo series represents.
When I presented the new “text” of the edited photos to my anthropology class, the effect was immediate. Both instructor and students were obviously shocked at the captions; they could not pronounce the Aboriginal names and were upset that the European men were so unceremoniously dismissed, despite their “obvious authority” as creators of the photo series. It was a great learning discussion for most as it questioned many aspects of culture, privilege, and how information is framed and understood.