Three years ago my mother, a residential school survivor, told me she was ‘tired of hearing just negative things about those times’; that there had been ‘positive and strong things in Indigenous communities then’. Inspired by her words, I began to look through archives, libraries, museums and private collections in search of images of Indigenous life that reflected integrity, strength, resourcefulness, hard work, family and play. And I found them.
The following photographs are of Indigenous peoples in primarily what is now Canada taken, for the most part, by non-Indigenous photographers between 1925 and the 1970s. When I first began to post some of these archival photographs on Twitter and Facebook, I expected some people to follow and ‘like’ them, but I could never have predicted that people would write in saying, ‘That’s my grandmother!’ or ‘That’s me forty-two years ago!’, often having seen the photograph for the very first time. This brought another layer to the photographs: the act of naming, a form of reclamation.
History has, since I was a child, interested me, but I am neither a trained historian nor an archivist, so I entered into this wet behind the ears, learning as I went along. I stumbled, made assumptions occasionally that were in error, and was grateful when I was corrected. I also learned that archival notes were not always accurate, either in name, location or cultural identity. There were lessons to be repeated like a mantra. Never assume. Worse, never add your assumptions to the captions. Reprint the archival captions as they are but expect, in many cases, that they will be inaccurate. Hope that in the seeing, someone out there will recognise a face, a hill, a building. Finally, expect the unexpected.