Turning the Lens: Indigenous Archival Photo Project

By Paul Seesequasis

The genesis of the Indigenous Archival Photo Project was three years ago, when my mother, a residential school survivor of St. Micheals Residential School at Duck Lake, commented that there were not enough coverage of the positive, day-to-day life during the times of her youth. Her intent was not to minimize the effects of the residential schools, living within the colonial confines of the Indian Act or the Pass System. Rather, it was to emphasis survivance of community and nation, the subversion of genocidal policies and the determination of our ancestors to keep family ties, language and customs alive.

That inspired me to begin to search out photographs of that time, photographs of First Nations, Metis and Inuit individuals and communities, from the turn of the century through to the late 1970s. What I found, increasingly, was a different imagery that transcended tropes of tragedy and subjugation, and spoke to visual themes that were inherently subversive of the hegemony of the state and its policies of disenfranchisement and assimilation. At the heart of this resistance was the visual framing of pride, hard work, ceremony, dances, music, humour, familial bonds, relationship to land and waters, animals and an intergeneration bond.

The project began humbly enough, three years ago, when after searching the digital collections of the national archives, provincial archives, libraries, museums and historical societies, I began to post online, through social media, photographs of Indigenous subjects that caught my eye and, subjectively, fit within the frame of what I was interested in. The response was surprising and exceeded my expectations. An online discourse began, sparked by the photograph and often drawing in other postings from people from that  particular community. The comments ran along several common themes: The family: “That’s my auntie!” “That’s my grandfather” “That’s me when I was 15!” ; The activity: That’s the way we used to do it.” “I remember carting water from the lake in pails. Sadly we cant’ do that anymore.” “I think that was the first Volkswagen beetle in the north.”; The photos also instigated an online oral narrative; “She was the midwife who attended my birth. She attended the births of I dont know how many of us.” “He feel through the ice hunting, somehow pulled himself out, got a fire going, warmed then walked all the way back to camp.”

As this online exchange with followers continued, and I became more familiar with the photographers themselves, both Indigenous and non Indigenous, both living and dead, I began to regard visual reclamation as an integral element of what ahd now become a project. The concept of visual reclamation is of course not new. Academics Alison K. Brown and Laura Peers, in “Pictures Bring Us Messages: Photographs and Histories from the Kainai Nation”, wrote about their experience of bringing a collection of 1920s photos back to the Blood Nation. Library and Archives Canada, through its Project Naming begun in 2002, has seen the identification by elders. many from Nunavut. of dozens upon dozens of photos. This project differed in that it was, until recently, only online, reliant on social media, and not focused on one particular region or nation or community. It was also thematically driven by themes of resilience and resistance.

Photography is not benign. From Edward Curtis’s JP Morgan- funded photographic trek cataloguing a so-called “vanishing race” to Robert Flaherty of “Nanook of the North” fame who sought a romanticized capture of Inuit life, the outsider’s gaze has been dominant toward Indigenous peoples. It has also been highly suspect, from Curtis’s suitcase of ragalic “props” to turn of the century photographers like Walter McClintock, who, while surrounded by Blackfeet living a contemporary life, sought only camp scenes and traditional dress. The photos of Curtis say more about the photographer than they do the subjects, who are posed within his tragic trope and the myth of the “vanishing race.”

Similarly, in working on this project, I have been cognizant that the majority, but not all, of the photographers being posted are non Indigenous, but I also have studiously avoided ceremonial depictions, anthropological field work or those driven by tourism. Rather, the emphasis is on photographers who had a non-invasive eye, were sensitive and appreciative, or were embedded in that community or region, often as priests or as natural resource workers.

In ‘Our Pictures Are Good Medicine’ Celeste Pedri-Spade makes the statement that ‘Western photographers often refrained from taking pictures of Anishinabeg in ‘Western’ clothing because these images were not aligned with the salvage paradigm that focused on preserving what was left of authentic ‘native’ cultures.’ Certainly, this manifest not only in Curtis but also say Walter McClintock, who spent considerable time in Blackfeet country in Montana yet what he photographed was predominately camp or ceremonial scenes. He would have been witness to contemporary Blackfeet life beyond this, but that rarely attracted his gaze. Like my family photo above, it resists contextulization as ‘traditional’, an assimilation of fashion and a desire to ‘dress up for what was then a rare event: a photograph. There are family photos I have where regalia is worn but it’s limited to the moment of the ‘event’, a powwow or a ceremonial occasion. It is not the norm. My family appears most often in ‘Sunday best’ or later, when casual photos become more common, in everyday clothing. So too do the majority of the photographs in the project. Conceptually I have avoided most photos of regalia. most powwow or ceremonial photos that would satisfy the exoticized, settler gaze.

In Trickster of Liberty, Anishinaabe scholar Gerald Vizenor wrote “..Plains teepees, and the signs of moccasins, canoes, arrowheads and numerous museum teasers, conjure the cultural rituals of the invented past; the pleasures of the tribal striptease are denied, data-bound in instrumental research, stopped in emulsion, colonized in Western literatures to resolve the insecurities and inhibitions of the dominant material culture.”

The Indigenous Archival Photo Project is an exercise in visual memory, shared across platforms, a digitized reclamation of familial photos, once framed within the context of museum pieces or anthropological filing, but now liberated in an previously unimagined digitized world. It is a new imagining, a return of kin, of ancestors, cousins, through an online dialogue and reclamation. It can be fraught with contraction and uncertainty but it is also, in many cases, the naming of the previously unnamed. It is also, if you allow ours to witness it, a tribute to the strength and determination of ancestors who worked hard, who laughed, who passed down stories, kept language alive, and, in a single pausing of time, gifted us with a photographic legacy saying this is where I came from. This is why I am here.


Everett Baker. Johnny LeCaine and Family. Wood Mountain Reserve, Saskatchewan. 1954.


Everett Baker. Cree Digging Clay. Duck Lake, Saskatchewan. 1945.


Everett Baker. Walking by the Wolf Willows. Poundmaker, Saskatchewan. 1942.




Everett Baker. Children Outside Tipi. Qu’Appelle Valley, Saskatchewan. 1957.