Indigenous People, Archives and History

By Mary Jane Logan McCallum

This essay is based on a lecture given as part of the Weweni Lecture Series at the University of Winnipeg on March 7, 2018.[1]  The Weweni Lecture series is designed to promote Indigenous scholarship, and it is also an opportunity to reflect on the processes and pathways that fuel our curiosity and inspire us to do our work.  For me, archives – the places and the collected stuff – have been an important part of that story, whether they are in London, England, Ottawa, Ontario, Winnipeg, Manitoba, or even parked in my brother’s driveway.  I want to look at archives as sites of both possibility and contestation for Indigenous historians by focusing in on four important “moments” I have experienced in archival research.

These moments have stood out to me because they involved finding evidence of some kind of event or action or person that represents information that doesn’t fit with other patterns.  During these moments, I was challenged to think about the past in ways that were more detailed and place-specific, more accurate, more careful, and that centred people I am related to and who I relate to, including women.  I want to situate these moments in their context in my education and thinking about the past – about the “when,” “where,” and “why” of those moments.

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Growing up, reading history and visiting historical sites was an integral part of my family life, so it was no surprise that I followed through to an undergraduate degree in History. At that time, my main interest in history was the Middle Ages in the UK and Europe (especially the history of religious orders and monasteries).  I was also interested in taking Indigenous history, which was not part of the curriculum offered at McMaster by their history department at the time.  So I learned Indigenous history where it was offered – the Indigenous Studies Program at Mac. Looking back, it seems critically important that it was much easier for me to specialize in Medieval European Christian history than it was to take Indigenous history even though I was studying at a history department at a Canadian university; and one located a fast half-hour drive from the largest First Nation in the country, Six Nations of the Grand River. This was beginning to change at some universities, including my own.

After my undergraduate years, I went to England and Europe to travel and work and to see some of the churches and monasteries I had studied. Before I left, I was asked by our community historian Mark Peters to look for information about my great-great-grandfather Scobie Logan. He had spent some time in England in the late nineteenth century to petition Queen Victoria to support the settlement of a land claim for the Munsees of the Thames River in southwestern Ontario.  Mark suggested that there might be something in London newspapers about my grandfather. I lived with a friend in Preston while looking for work and eventually got a job working at the Swan Hotel in Grasmere in the Lake District in the north of England.  A short while later, I had a weekend off of work and made my way by train to what was then called the Newspaper Archives in London, part of the British Library.


A researcher with a microfilm reader at the British Library

I had been given a week of possible dates to scan microfilms of London newspapers for mentions of my uncle and his visit to England.  I spent all day with a microfilm reader and thought I would never be able to find his name.


This is an image of one page of The Standard newspaper.

But as the story goes, at very last moment, there it was – an article about my grandfather called “A Redskin Mission.” A brief moment of euphoria was quickly followed by an urge to make a thousand photocopies before the archives closed. I ordered small, medium, and large copies – and then requested really big ones to be sent to me in Grasmere (which came in a tube in the mail shockingly quickly). I remember walking out of the archives that day – a rare sunny, warm day in November, feeling really strange – having a small connection to a history I thought I should have known but didn’t – and a really unexpected collision of time and place.  I arranged for the documents to be sent to Mark Peters and Munsee too.  My mom made several more copies when she got hers and sent them around to family members.


The article on my “redskin” Grandfather, “A Redskin Mission,” The London Evening Standard, June 14, 1882, p. 3

London is an extraordinarily expensive place to research.  At the time I earned £3 an hour (and they don’t tip in England), and the archive trip completely drained my very limited bank account. Newspaper research is much more accessible today, as many are available in searchable databases online. I found this copy of “A Redskin Mission” free from the British Library’s website (and I learned that it had been reprinted in several other contemporary newspapers worldwide).

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I had a great time that year on my own in Britain and Europe; however, I recall getting frustrated with the great wealth of the churches and cathedrals I visited. My suspicion was that their wealth was connected in important but obscured ways to our history in North America.


I started to have a bit of a thing for monasteries and abbeys in England that dissolved to rubble in the late middle ages – this is one of my favourites: Rievaulx (Cistercian) Abbey, North Yorkshire UK.  Dissolved ca. 1538

When I returned to North America I decided that I wanted to study Indigenous history. I never planned to go to graduate school and knew practically nothing about it, but I was fortunate to have some of my close friends from university at grad school and med school, so I learned more by watching and learning from them.

I went to Trent with an idea that I might study one of two topics.  I thought I would look at my own First Nations community history or look into a topic that connected my interest in medieval European history with my interest in Indigenous history, such as medical knowledge in the early contact era. My knowledge of both topics was extraordinarily slim, and I spent a lot of time without a particular research plan in mind, but just reading.

At one point my supervisor sent me to the Anglican archives in Toronto for some inspiration and practice.  This was the beginning of a strange journey into the archives of private organizations that have records about the public that they are not compelled share with the public. It was just after the release of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, and law suits by Indian Residential School survivors had begun to concern churches, to say the least.  Going to a church archives to ask specifically about residential schools was asking to get into a conversation you did not want to have – or to be invited to a church service, which also happened to me a few times.  The first question usually was “why do you want to see them?” I started down a strange path of bizarre communications with archivists, and people working at archives who were not archivists, whom I thought probably wouldn’t let me see things if they really knew who I was and what my views of the Indian Residential Schools were. So I would frame my research in indirect ways and try to pre-empt assumptions and awkward conversation.


The coveted “stacks” where archivists retrieve documents approved for review. Why are you interested in the history of residential schools?  How are you going to write about the church?

On this first visit to the Anglican archvies, I saw a very compelling image of Girl Guides from around the 1950s at a residential school in Akalvik, in the Northwest Territories. The girls in the photo were wearing a uniform I was very familiar with; in a much different historical context, I too had been a Girl Guide.

I quickly became fascinated by the connections between the history of the Girl Guide movement and the ways it overlapped with the history I knew about Indian Residential Schools in Canada.  At the same time, I had all kinds of doubts about the legitimacy of this line of research, based on what kinds of histories I had learned to that date.  I thought to myself,  “You can’t do a thesis on Girl Guides in residential schools!  That’s not a real topic of history!  History is old – well, older than the 1950s – and it is about so-called ‘important people,’ and their ‘important events.’”  I hadn’t considered that things I myself could relate to counted as “real” scholarly history.

But I was so interested in the photo that I wanted to go back and see if there were more like it. For several months, I had this back and forth until finally I just ended up being so interested that I couldn’t help but do more research on it.  And once I started looking for this history, I found it literally everywhere.  There was evidence of residential school Girl Guide groups in the National Archives; the various national, provincial, and local Girl Guides archives; church archives; and newspapers across the country.  The sources I found said a lot about women and their roles in settling and populating the British Empire. They discussed Canadian women’s organizations and their philanthropic work with Indigenous girls and women. The sources also supported programs of assimilation for Indigenous girls and women and described what at the time was believed to be ‘true’ or ‘authentic’ Indian people and Indian history.

The archives I visited to do this research consistently denied their connection to Indian Residential Schools, but at the same time they were happy that I was interested in their records. The archives were in the basements of shopping plazas, old houses, institutional headquarters, and rooms with just a table and a chair.  These archives were mostly staffed by retired Girl Guide veteran volunteers with lots of questions and lots of time. I benefitted from familiarity with the structure and “language” of Girl Guides and my first-hand experience of the movement.  They often gave me free photocopies, which made digesting the incredible volume of material I was finding a little easier; instead of having to read and take notes about all of the records while at the archives, I could spend more time searching while there and take some of it home with me to read later on.


A copy of the image with caption found at the archives taped to the cover of one of my MA research notebooks, ca. 1999

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Moment three is when I found a photo of my mom in the records of the Department of Indian Affairs at Library and Archives Canada, in Ottawa. Nothing in my training as a historian had prepared me for that moment.

Library and Archives Canada (LAC) is Canada’s national repository for state and private records. Its role is to preserve the documentary heritage of Canada and to make it accessible to the public. Located on unceded Algonquin territory, LAC is a hub for archivists and record-keepers in Canada, and a destination for many academic and amateur researchers. The research trip to the national archives is something of a rite of passage for many document-based historical researchers who study Canada.


Library and Archives Canada: ‘Queen of the Colonial Archives’

At the archives, researchers are confronted by the state—literally at the door. Registration is necessary, and federally employed, mostly older ex-military security officers guard the building, the boxes of records, the talking, and, when possible, the cameras researchers now use to photograph records. The Indigenous research trip to the national archives, Susan Hill argues, highlights many of the ironies faced by Indigenous people, people of colour, women, and other marginalized scholars. As Indigenous academics, in order to undertake work on our own communities, we must be able to afford to travel to the national capital—the symbol of our marginalization, the seat of federal power and white, masculine, colonial display. Here, we toil away reading records that were written and collected by people who were not part of our communities; records created and taken without our knowledge or consent under the regime of the Indian Act and later deposited according to pre-set mandates created, again, without our consultation. For this and other reasons, we will often find information in the archives that has been made unknown, kept confidential, or otherwise obscured. And although Indigenous voices are often absent, these documents are a vital part of Indigenous history.

Part of what you learn when undertaking searches of archives is how to think like the entity you are researching—in my case, my work on Indian policy in health, education and labour requires me to think like the federal government and the DIA – in other words, you need to try to think like a colonizer. This can do strange things to your head.  Moreover, our work involves reading correspondence, mostly between people who clearly dislike Indigenous people or at best see them as a problem to be solved. They wrote documents that they never intended to share with the people they were writing about, even while they were making decisions that would intimately affect the lives of the people they were discussing. Reading these records involves trying to understand a logic that changes somewhat over time and from one DIA staff member to the next, but which at heart holds that the purpose of the Department is to discipline and control Indigenous people and to minimize treaty and other relations of accountability.  In short, reading DIA records – and the archive itself – can be emotionally and intellectually exhausting, exacerbating the physical strain of archival research.


Photo, Judy Jordan (McCallum) and her class at Mount Elgin Day School, ca. 1960s

My mom’s image had been collected and saved in order to document and represent mid-century Indian policy in which Indigenous men and women would find social acceptance and integration through full-time employment.  As a teacher at Mount Elgin day school, my mom represented an ideal model of assimilated youth – a way to show off the department’s “excellence” in Indian education programming, still underfunded and unequal today.


Photo, back, and file where I found it

When I asked my mom about the picture, she recalled that the Muncey school was under-resourced compared to non-reserve schools.  She was the only First Nations teacher at the school at the time and one of a minority of First Nations teachers in southern Ontario.  She also told me about a conversation she had had with a fellow student in teachers’ college who asked her, “Why on earth would you want to work on a reserve?”

The context of family love of history and education are not accessible in the archives where this photo is stored.  Instead, this photo was found among files that were meant to show the success of the DIA’s policy of integration and assimilation and the ability of some First Nations people to intellectually thrive in the modern world (in spite of their backwards and primitive heritage). It was an awkward moment. Seeing my Mom leading a class of young people as a teacher was familiar– so too was the DIA font typed description on the back; yet these two things together seemed like a cosmic error, a colossal inaccuracy. It’s my hope that we can eventually have much more of a role in the making, storage, digitization, protection, and regulation of our own records – not only our own community based ones, but also those at LAC.

This photo continues to haunt me.  Recently, the photo of my Mom was oddly published in an elementary-level textbook by Melanie Florence, entitled Righting Canada’s Wrongs: The Devastating Impact on Canada’s Indigenous Peoples and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Findings and Calls for Action.  The book’s caption for the photo reads: “Some Devoted Teachers: Judy Jordan taught at Mount Elgin Industrial Institute near London, Ontario.  Some teachers believed that their students had value and that their job was an important one.  Those were the teachers who made a positive impression.”  The industrial school closed in the mid-1940s, and the one my mom taught at was its replacement, also a federal school called Mount Elgin, but it was a day school in a new building built in the 1960s. I felt partly responsible for this misidentification, but also defensive of historical methodologies and research skills. The researcher who found the photo and chose to use it for the book had found it only because after I found the original I had a digital copy made, which was then put on the LAC archives website for anyone to see. The textbook researcher had obviously assumed that there was only one Mount Elgin school, that it stayed the same across time, and that it could stand in for all histories of all residential schools – a common trend in residential school history.  I have since been in touch with the archivist to have the photo description made more specific.  I also contacted the publisher who thanked me for bringing the error to their attention and offered to make updates to future editions of the book.


The ironically titled Righting Canada’s Wrongs, p. 78.

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A few years ago, I was at the national archives to examine records of Indian Health Services (National Health and Welfare) operations in Manitoba. After long days working in the archive, I often spend the evening hours, after the service staff have gone home, reeling through microfilms of DIA records that I suspect may contain information about my family and community.


Late Afternoon, Reading Room 3rd Floor, Library and Archives Canada

One night on that research trip, I came across an image of a nineteenth-century residential school, made darker by the microfilm it was on. Beside the photo, the words “Mount Elgin Indian Residential School” were punctuated by tall capital letters. The page bore the familiar oval Department of Indian Affairs Records stamp and the serial number 524664. Scrawled across the top was the hand-written note, “Hold for Mr. Scott.” The note, dated 19 May 1919, was from the principal of Mount Elgin, S.R. McVitty, to Duncan Campbell Scott (the superintendent of the Department of Indian Affairs from 1913 to 1932, whose words “I want to get rid of the Indian problem” are among the most well-known in Canadian and First Nations history).

The First World War had ended, and McVitty was inviting DC Scott and his wife to attend the school’s “closing day exercises” that July. “One thing else,” McVitty wrote. “About eighty graduates of this school volunteered for active service. One of them, Arnold Logan, was the first Indian to cross the Ocean in defence of the Empire. He sleeps in ‘Flanders Fields’ with about a dozen of his pupil comrades. Could you in any way induce ‘the powers that be’ to present the school with a medium or even small sized German gun, in recognition of their services? And could it be here by July 1st?”


Letter to Duncan Campbell Scott from S.R. McVitty, 19 May 1919, LAC RG 10 Volume 6205, file 468-1, part

My great-great-uncle Arnold’s name jumped off the page at me unexpectedly, and I sat there stunned. A wave of contradictory thoughts about family, history, the Canadian state, and archives washed over me. I felt like I had hit the jackpot—there was my Uncle! But I also felt uneasy, like I was learning information about my family in the wrong way. This was not how family history is usually received. I also felt a strange vulnerability on behalf of my uncle. These two men, one with federal power and one with local power over First Nations people, who each made critical decisions affecting the lives of Indigenous people without their input, were discussing Arnold in the absence of his family and making arrangements in his name without their knowledge, input, or consent. One hazard of being an Indigenous researcher of federal DIA records is that they are filled with our ancestors, most often in perfunctory ways that sap the humanity from their names and truncate the stories from their lives (if names /stories appear at all). And the paternalism and racism are overt and palpable and hard to take if you offend easily – which I do.

This document was added to a growing number that our family has gathered and saved about our family and community history – Arnold’s life and history has been integral to this. This archival research project is different from my other projects in a number of ways:

  • It has no beginning or end, at least not that I can see;
  • It includes a large and shifting number of research “partners,” most of whom are related to me;
  • The “purpose” and the “hypothesis” of the project are not well-defined, and as far as I know, we don’t really care.

I think that probably the clearest thing I can say about it is about the methodology – which has been to investigate the life of a relative; to collect various records from different archives (family photographs, newspaper articles, military records, labour and union records from the Elgin County Archives, Library and Archives Canada, St Thomas Times Journal, London Free Press), which we then send each other on email; and then to periodically meet and talk about them, sometimes sharing booklets of images or stories based on the records.

One thing that I find rewarding about working on this project is the relative ease with which we can find archival evidence about Arnold during the war. There are a few reasons for this:

  • He was a guy in the Canadian army and the Canadian army created all kinds of records from enlistment, medical exams, diaries of battles, casualty forms, statement of service, etc. There are lots of military historians who look at the records and make them available. Also, men in the military are celebrated and are of interest in many public history projects, military museums, Veterans’ Affairs projects, etc. Arnold’s mother, Isabelle, and his sister Alma are not so easy to trace.
  • He was a good-looking and popular First Nations guy. As an Indian, he was subject to colonial policy that, when enacted, produced an enormous archive in Canada that includes the RG 10 records of the Department of Indian Affairs. For example, Arnold went to Mount Elgin Indian Residential School and he was a member of a governing family on the reserve. He was a young, literate, and by all accounts good-looking and popular native guy. His early death in a horrible war is tragic – an embodied and tangible source of interest in our history. There is a story or more about Indigenous masculinity here.
  • Arnold lived both on and off the reserve (as did his father). Like lots of people in St. Thomas, Ontario, he worked for the railway (Pere Marquette) and he had a mixed social network. He had a close friendship with a white guy from St. Thomas by the name of Biggs, who survived the war. He was part of a local militia with Biggs, enlisted with him, and wrote letters home with him. Together, the two were treated as local heroes. The way Arnold was written about in the local paper seems to defy many of the typical images of Native people in Canadian media and their treatment in twentieth-century small-town southern Ontario.

Family context is also important in the interpretation of records. Arnold and I are part of family that is, albeit subjectively, very, very cool. The Logans are a collection of artists, academics, soldiers, drinkers, fighters, travellers, actors, hockey players, hairdressers, teachers, writers, dog-lovers, race-horse owners, railway conductors, tobacco pickers, farmers, auto workers, homemakers (in multiple senses). Many of the Logans are strikingly good-looking, intimidating and funny, and we assume in lots of ways that Arnold fits well somewhere in here. We use the archives in some ways to highlight this.

We recently celebrated the anniversary of his death, April 26, 1916, asking people to bring any documents, stories and photos to share. Our Chief joked about our request, seeing as you’d have to be at least 120 years old to have known him. And yet, we had four long tables full of family documents, scrapbooks, photographs, and art, including a story my mom’s cousin wrote about Arnold’s friendship with Biggs, a scrapbook of a cousin’s trip to Belgium to visit Arnold’s grave, and my brother’s blog for young readers about Arnold’s life that he is also translating into our (highly endangered) language, Lunaape.  Arnold’s ongoing archive inspired our 2016 powwow theme, which was dedicated in his honour. And of course, we brought our records.


We have since met twice to talk about family trees and to listen to what we have found out about Scobie and Arnold  Logan and other Munsee history. One meeting was organized as a two-day event with one day devoted to learning Lunaape. These events are interesting, geeky, and energizing – which is how I like my history served – and we hope to have many more.


Not all archives are accessible.  For all of the examples given here, I needed no formal ethics approval or application process to see the records. Because of this, in all cases, I was able to use an interpretive method that involved other people. Sharing and talking about the archives with those who could provide a helpful reading of them (including not only family, but also professional archivists and historians) was key to my understanding of what they were about and what they mean in the present.  This is not possible in the use of records that are restricted, for example, the medical records I use in my research on the history of tuberculosis. That research took me into a long “Moment 5,” during which I negotiated a researcher agreement over a number of years that provides strict guidelines governing access to documents and restricts sharing in this way. I’m still living this fifth moment, and in lots of ways I struggle with the desire, on the one hand, to access records that had long been closed to researchers, and on the other, the limiting and lonely work of researching unhappy records under a punitive contract. I work to reclaim those records and am motivated by the work of Indigenous archiving, and Indigenous public history and heritage centres.  There is a lot of work to be done in a lot of different places and, I hope, many future pivotal and captivating archival moments.

[1] Parts of this essay appear in the foreword to John Milloy’s A National Crime (2017) and were presented at a Roundtable called “Keepers of Knowledge: Archives and its impact on Historical Research” at the 2016 Fort Garry Lectures in Winnipeg, Manitoba. Many thanks to Jill McConkey who read and edited this paper.