“Pho­to­graphic Mem­o­ries,”

A crowd­sourc­ing project is help­ing Indige­nous com­mu­ni­ties re­claim their sto­ries

The Walrus - - CONTENTS - by paul seese­qua­sis

Three years ago, as an ex­per­i­ment, I be­gan what has be­come the Indige­nous Archival Photo Project. There are im­ages of First Na­tions peo­ple, Métis peo­ple, and Inuit in the col­lec­tions of his­tor­i­cal so­ci­eties, mu­se­ums, and ar­chives — of­ten with­out any ac­com­pa­ny­ing notes about the peo­ple who are in the pho­to­graphs or the pho­tog­ra­phers who took them. I started shar­ing im­ages on Twit­ter and Face­book in hopes of fill­ing these gaps. As peo­ple rec­og­nized the sub­jects in the pho­to­graphs and tried to iden­tify dates and lo­ca­tions, shar­ing the im­ages with their rel­a­tives in turn, the project gained its own mo­men­tum. It be­came an ex­er­cise in vis­ual recla­ma­tion and dig­i­tal repa­tri­a­tion of the pho­to­graphs them­selves — a re­turn to com­mu­nity.

This par­tic­u­lar set of pho­to­graphs was taken in the 1950s and early 1960s by pho­to­jour­nal­ist Rosemary Gil­liat Ea­ton, at a time when the daily lives of Indige­nous peo­ples were largely in­vis­i­ble and of lit­tle in­ter­est to the set­tler pop­u­la­tion ( set­tler is a term for non-indige­nous in­hab­i­tants of Canada). First Na­tions, Métis, and Inuit com­mu­ni­ties faced mul­ti­ple atroc­i­ties: Chil­dren were sep­a­rated from their fam­i­lies and forced into fos­ter care, adopted by non-indige­nous fam­i­lies, or sent into res­i­den­tial schools. The In­dian Act stripped in­di­vid­u­als of their rights, and the pass sys­tem (an in­for­mal process by which First Na­tions peo­ple who wanted to leave their re­serves had to ob­tain writ­ten per­mis­sion from a fed­eral In­dian agent) largely con­fined First Na­tions peo­ple to their com­mu­ni­ties.

The govern­ment as­signed Inuit de­hu­man­iz­ing num­bered iden­ti­fi­ca­tion tags.

As a work­ing fe­male jour­nal­ist, Ea­ton was a rar­ity in her time. She trav­elled much of Canada, east to west to north, pro­pelled by her nat­u­ral cu­rios­ity and on photo as­sign­ments. She sold her work to the Na­tional Film Board and to Week­end and The Beaver (now Canada’s His­tory) mag­a­zines, among oth­ers. Ea­ton’s pho­tos are dis­tinct be­cause of her abil­ity to cap­ture her sub­jects in a can­did state — some­times laugh­ing, some­times work­ing, go­ing about day-today things. Hers was, no ques­tion, an out­side eye, but one with del­i­cate sen­si­tiv­ity.

Indige­nous and non-indige­nous view­ers may see these pho­to­graphs dif­fer­ently, but the im­ages em­body an in­her­ent pos­si­bil­ity of dia­logue, ex­change, and mu­tual ap­pre­ci­a­tion and un­der­stand­ing. Ea­ton was tak­ing her pho­tos in of­ten dark times, yet the im­ages we see de­pict func­tion­ing, hard-work­ing peo­ple and com­mu­ni­ties, re­flect­ing the in­tegrity of pre­vi­ous Indige­nous gen­er­a­tions. Her work is not framed within the “van­ish­ing race” trope — de­pict­ing Indige­nous peo­ples as ro­man­ti­cized (and thus dis­pens­able) relics of the past — pop­u­lar­ized by Ed­ward S. Curtis, the Amer­i­can pho­tog­ra­pher famed for his im­ages of Na­tive Amer­i­can com­mu­ni­ties in the late nine­teenth and early twen­ti­eth cen­turies. There is a re­silient thread re­vealed in her pho­to­graphs, fray­ing but not sev­ered by colo­nial­ism. Ea­ton’s sub­jects are not vic­tims.

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