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Through a Lens: Reclamation

From Brick 98

The pass is dated June 3, 1896, a Wednesday. It gives permission for my great-great-grandfather, Joe Seesequasis, to visit his children, Jean, a girl, and John, who were hundreds of miles away in Regina attending the Indian Industrial Boarding School. I can barely fathom the time and planning that went into the trip, which today can be driven in five hours but back then would have taken days with horse and wagon. Then there was the food and water for the horses and for Joe. Needless to say, there was little money to spare.

I have no idea whether R. Suck was a kind or authoritative Indian agent, but the family must have been anxious about whether the pass to see their son and daughter would be granted. Joe’s life was one of stunning transitions. He would have been old enough to remember the days before the signing of Treaty 6 in 1876 and the days before there was a “reserve.” Perhaps he remembered as a young boy seeing the last bison herds before they disappeared in the 1860s from the northern plains. He was witness to so much change. Little of it must have felt positive.

I’ve never been comfortable in one place for very long. A restlessness sets in like a persistent itch after six months or so, regardless of the place I’m in or the amenities it offers. Lately I’ve wondered if some of this is inherited memory residue, an unconscious response to the decades of colonial confinement my family and countless other Indigenous families were subjected to. I never lived under the pass system nor needed the signature of an agent to move freely; still, there is something in a sedentary life that unsettles.

But there is another side to this story and in fact to the many stories and the many communities subjected to the pass system, and that is the strength and resolve and resilience of Indigenous communities who kept familial ties together along with traditions and language. This they did even in the hardest of times, when communities had little of the material things that many take for granted today. That is a story that needs to be told more: not only to acknowledge what is truly a great couple of generations preceding us but also to offer a positive response to the familiar stories and images of tragedy and dysfunction we are inundated with.

What is now Canada is traced by countless arterial pathways, trails, footpaths, and meeting places that are timeless. From the forty-ninth parallel to the farthest reaches of the northern land mass, movement was long driven by hunting or trade or migration with the seasons. The fluidity of this human interaction with land and nature is hard to grasp in our world of stagnant borders and boundaries and homes and ownership and exploitation of land.

The Truth and Reconciliation processes have brought out horrid stories and opened old wounds. The apologies from church and state may acknowledge past wrongs, but they do little to absolve the past. You cannot change the past.

However, my mother did say relatively recently that “we need more positive stories.” I have taken this to heart and the path I’ve chosen is archival photographs of Indigenous people over a fifty-year period, from the 1920s to the 1970s. It began with a few photos that I posted on social media and has now become, for lack of a better word, an obsession, with more than fifteen hundred photographs gathered from various public archives and libraries. In many, the subjects are unnamed, but their spirit and personality are clearly evident. In others, the names are known, or the people have been “named” through the process of sharing the images.

The stories reflect the integrity not only of the subjects but also of the photographers, who came with minimal assumptions or preconceptions of “Indigeneity” and in many cases were accepted as part of the communities they were photographing. These are not the romanticized photos of a “dying race” nor the Edward Curtis–like photojournalism, the photographer accompanied by a suitcase of props to make the “Indian look Indian.” These moments in time have their own story to tell.

She is thigh-deep in a dug hole in a field, shovelling clay into a bucket as another middle-aged woman stands over her, waiting to dump the full pail into the wagon. A team of horses stands and a dog kneels in the grass behind a rear wagon wheel. The clay will be mixed with wood ash or grass and water to chink a log cabin on Beardy’s Reserve, near Duck Lake, Saskatchewan.

It is 1944, the war is still raging in Europe, and many young Cree men are serving overseas. These two women are no doubt accustomed to hard work, even more so now with many young men away. They’ve known hard times, growing up in the 1920s and 1930s, and survived the Great Depression; however, the look on their faces is not one of sadness but one of enjoyment in their labour and each other’s company.

The photograph could as easily be a naturalist painting by the Cree Allan Sapp, whose art captured day-to-day life on Cree reserves in the 1940s and 1950s, a time before running water or television, when wagons far outnumbered trucks, and when the local entertainment was often fiddlers and guitarists playing by the light of hung kerosene lamps as people jigged and danced reels in the community hall. It was a time when people visited each other by wagons in the summer or covered sleighs in the winter and when working together was just the way you got things done.

Fairs in neighbouring towns and cities were a big deal on the prairies in the 1940s and 1950s. They were a chance to hitch up the wagon, load the whole family, and head to town. At a time when the Indian agent and the pass system, designed to keep “Indians on the reserve,” were still a recent, sour memory (the pass system existed as late as 1941), the opportunity to travel off-reserve was a welcome event.

Fairs like the North Battleford Fair, pictured above, attracted wagonloads of families from neighbouring reserves. In the Battleford area, mostly Cree, Métis, and Dakota came to the fairs to trade and buy goods, to see the attractions, and, most importantly, to socialize with relatives and friends.

This photograph was taken the day after the fair. The teams of horses are now hitched up; people dressed in their Sunday finest are saying final goodbyes to relations and friends, making last-minute exchanges of goods, and preparing for the long journey “back to the Rez.” These fair get-togethers also echo the old times, when smaller bands would come together at special times of the year, at special places, for ceremonies, trading, and dancing.

It is 1945 and despite decades of the reserve system and the restrictive bureaucracy of the Indian Act, the spirit of the people to congregate, trade, and celebrate together has not dissipated.

There is nothing like bannock while camping. Whether baked or fried, bannock is delicious and filling and easy to make. It is small wonder that it became a treasured staple among First Nations, Inuit, and Métis peoples, especially when they were living off the land where simplicity counts. The actual origins of bannock in North America are lost to time and legend, but a common theory is that it was introduced by Scots traders in the 1600s and 1700s. However it started, it spread like wildfire from the southern plains to the shores of the Arctic Ocean. White flour, lard, water, baking soda, and sugar are the ingredients of the more modern variation, and here, at Grieg Lake, Saskatchewan, in 1941, a cast-iron pan is placed vertically over hot coals to slowly bake the bread. This is one of many ways of making bannock, sometimes with the addition of raisins or various berries.

In the photograph, an older Cree woman, maybe the kookum (grandmother) or auntie, kneels by the fire, cooking what may be fish in a pan while the bannock leavens and a young child and mother watch from the open tent. One can feel their anticipation for the meal that awaits. There is no word for art in Cree. The closest traditional phrase is something to the effect of “creation shines through her or him”; in other words, it is an offered gift that enriches life and gives pleasure to others. In that way, the making of bannock is an art.

St. Laurent de Grandin is an area of Métis settlement along the banks of the winding South Saskatchewan River. It is near Batoche and is long associated with the Cree and Métis, who, in the buffalo days, had winter camps in the region. As more displaced Métis from Manitoba arrived in the region, a mission was established in 1873, and within a decade St. Laurent was a prosperous village with a telegraph, post office, stores, and a ferry. Prior to the cataclysmic events of the Northwest Resistance in 1885, Charles Nolin, a prominent Métis leader in the community whose wife was suffering a mysterious stomach ailment and internal bleeding, asked the local Fathers for help. The Fathers suggested she pray at a nearby spring that had recently been dedicated to Our Lady of Lourdes. There she was cured, and Nolin promised to pay for a statue at the site.

Abandoned after the events of 1885, the site slowly regained its status as a spiritual sanctuary for the Métis, Cree, and Fransaskois people, with the first pilgrimage to the grotto in 1905. When the above photograph was taken, at the height of the site’s popularity in the 1940s, hundreds made the annual pilgrimage for blessings and the reception of healing miracles.

The history of residential schools, and the many instances of abuse, naturally casts a dark shadow over the relationship between the Church and Indigenous communities. But faith is a complex thing, and while the intentions of those seeking to “save and convert” were no doubt rooted in submerging Indigenous beliefs, an unintended blending of faiths could and did occur. Prior to the Métis, the region around St. Laurent de Grandin had been a gathering place, as attested to by bison jumps and archaeological findings. The sacredness of the aspen parkland along the river in that area was clearly evident to people long before the first churches were built. It persists to this day.

In 1903, Father Hugonard, principal of the Qu’Appelle Indian Industrial School, wrote the first of many letters to the Indian Commissioner, complaining that “Pow-Wows” were “the hotbed of Indian ways, laziness, and discord” and that Indian agents penalize “known dancers.” Sections of the Indian Act were designed to suppress traditional ceremonies and spirituality, such as the Sun Dance and potlatches, but even secular gatherings such as powwows were discouraged and even banned. Still, they did take place, either in secret or under the auspices of an Indian agent who chose to look the other way and ignore policy. Dancers who had been penalized found themselves given gifts at the powwows as the communities subverted the control of the agents.

It is believed that the first powwow dances came across the medicine line with the Dakota people and were soon adopted across the prairies as a means of celebration. Over time the dances evolved, as did the music and, importantly, the regalia, which became more elaborate for both men and women. Through the decades of suppression, and the destabilizing impact of residential schools, the powwows continued, albeit less frequently. It wasn’t until 1951 that the Indian Act was amended so that powwows could be held without interference or penalty. Not long after this change, Everett Baker visited the Qu’Appelle Valley and took this photograph of the “Sioux” (Dakota) powwow.

Under a log-and-grass canopy, the dancers circle the spectators; their regalia is bright and colourful and bears the markings of what would become the pageantry of contemporary powwow dress. There are no number cards visible on any of the dancers, so this is likely a “traditional” (non-competitive) powwow rather than a competitive (prizes) gathering. The delicious irony is that this 1957 dance is taking place not far from where Father Hugonard lobbied to have the powwows banned, just over fifty years before.

The photographs in this piece are by Everett Baker, who came to Saskatchewan after World War I. Working as a book agent, he saw much of the province. But it was after he bought a $100 Leica camera from a German immigrant that his invaluable contribution to the photographic history of Saskatchewan began. Working as a field man for the Saskatchewan Wheat Pool, he took thousands of Kodachrome photos of farmers, townspeople, and Indigenous peoples, capturing their day-to-day lives through the 1940s to the 1960s. He became a travelling roadshow performer of sorts, as people flocked to see his slides and movies on a portable screen with a projector powered by a motor in the back of his car. In 1957, Baker became the founding president of the Saskatchewan History & Folklore Society. Shortly before his death, Baker donated his eleven thousand slides to the public archives. All photos courtesy of the Saskatchewan History & Folklore Society, with the exception of “The Pass” which is courtesy of the University of Saskatchewan Archives.

Paul Seesequasis is a writer, editor, cultural activist, and journalist. He was a founding editor of the award-winning Aboriginal Voices magazine and a program officer for a number of years at the Canada Council for the Arts. His short stories and feature writings have been published in Canada and abroad. A new book inspired by archival photographs of Indigenous communities will be published by Knopf Canada in 2018. He currently resides in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan.

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