For more than two years, I have been researching and posting archival and historical photographs of Indigenous communities in Canada and the US. The photographs come from national archives, museums, libraries and private collections. The images show kids playing. They show artists drawing. They show people laughing around a fire, making tea, tanning hides, riding horses, sewing kamiks, picking berries, playing music or pointing to their Beatles poster. They are photographs of everyday life and my curatorial framework is very much outside the ‘tragic’ imagery so familiar to anyone following mainstream media
In other words, they show Indigenous people captured in candid moments in the not-so-distant past, doing normal things. That’s what gives these images their resonance. They are not posed by someone else or framed within a colonial/settler gaze.
We witness a lot of negative imagery on social media about the past and I really just want to show, in this project, that there is a resilience and a strength in our families and our communities. Posting these photographs has also involved a process of reclamation as friends and relatives have identified people not named in the photographs or offered narratives to give further context. This is the most rewarding aspect of the project.
Penguin Random House will publish a full colour book of these photographs and narratives from individuals and communities in the fall of 2018. The following example from Kuujjuaq gives a taste of what’s to come.
The red plaid fabrics were distinctive of Nunavik and the fabric carried by the Hudson’s Bay Company store. Ulipakak was the name of a plaid shawl that are used to carry a baby.
‘Red plaid was the ‘traditional garb for women then,’ explains Taqralik Partridge. ‘Though nowadays you see a lot of Gordon tartan, which is navy.’
In a 1999 interview in Northerners: Above and Beyond, Jacob Partridge, Taqralik Partridge’s father, spoke of the 50th anniversary of his homecoming to Kuujjuaq. In 1949, he returned from his hospital internment in the south for Tuberculosis.
The youngest of eight children, Jacob was named Imaapik at birth. His family lived out on the land near Quaqtaq, Nunavik and came into the settlement of Kuujjuaq (Fort Chimo) to trade for goods. However, when Imaapik was two years old he could no long-er walk and he began to experience a pain in his hip. His parents decided to take him to Kuujjuaq for medical treatment.
His mother was the keeper of the family's disc - (numerical identification) numbers the colonial authorities gave out to Inuit to identify them as they found the names difficult to pronounce and so each disc’s number identified a person. When the family were getting ready to take lmaapik to the nursing station, his mother looked frantically through the collection of discs, afraid her baby would be denied treatment without it, but couldn't find the one belonging to him. Imaapik had been using a disc for a soother and, assuming it was his, the mother brought it with them. However, it turned out to be her grandson, Jacob Kudluk's disc.
The nurse couldn't identify Imaapik's ailment but knew he needed to be sent south for treatment. The nurse convinced his parents to send him south and wrote his name down as Jacob. His mother argued through an interpreter that that was not his name. But the nurse didn't listen to her about the mistaken disc number. Finally, his mother, Siasi, burst out in Inuktitut, ‘Okay then! Call him Jacob so he can be sent out to be cured!’
Jacob vividly remembers how sick he was when he first arrived at the hospital in the south. He developed terrible diarrhea from the strange foods he was now forced to consume. He had been raised on a traditional healthy diet of mother's milk, fish, seal and caribou meat. The cow's milk and cooked vegetables he was now fed were next to im-possible for him to digest. Imaapik’s story was sadly familiar to a lot of Inuk children sent south for TB at the time.
Jacob was sent to Halifax for treatment to his left hipbone, then transferred to Toronto. He was in the hospital for nearly seven years, endured several operations and spent five years in a body and leg cast. Though Jacob eventually recovered, one leg would always be shorter than the other and he ended up walking with a limp. When he was eight, the doctors pronounced him cured and said he would be allowed to return home. But Jacob no longer knew where "home" was, being a small child when he'd arrived. The nurses brought him a map of Canada and asked him to point to where he came from. He had no idea. It was the first time the eight-year-old had seen a map. Finally, sobbing, he pointed to his favourite colour on the map: blue. His finger had, by chance, touched on Ungava Bay.
The Partridge's never knew what happened to their son. They sent a letter south, trying to learn of his whereabouts, and five years later that letter finally found its way to the hospital in Toronto. It was written in syllabics and a Cree woman patient was the only one who could read it. She was brought to Jacob and asked him questions that later helped to discover his actual home.
Around the same time, one of the nurses, who had worked in the same hospital Jacob was at, got stationed in Kuujjuaq. While she was there she heard about a Partridge family that lived out on the land. The name wasn't common and she wondered if they might be related to the little Inuk boy she’d met in the Toronto hospital.
One day when the Partridges were in town for supplies, the nurse sought them out to ask if they had a little boy, named Jacob, who had been taken south to the hospital at a young age. The answer was no. But then, Siasi Partridge remembered the argument she'd had, years ago, with another nurse who had changed Imaapik's name to Jacob, based on the wrong ID disc. She realized this Jacob was indeed her little boy.
"Yes," she told the nurse. "He is my son."
In the Summer of ’49, seven years after he had been taken south, a plane brought Imaapik north to Kuujjuaq. He was home.
Now in his 70s, Imaapik remembers that day vividly. When the people of the Kujjuaq heard that Imaapik Partridge was coming home, the women lined up along the shoreline, a sea of red plaid, to welcome him. He came ashore, shaking every single person's hand, babies included. Imaapik Partridge was home.
Paul Seesequasis is a writer, cultural activist and journalist. His writing and commentaries have been featured in many magazines and journals, online and in print, as well as podcasts and social media. He was a founding editor of the award-winning Aboriginal Voices magazine, and the recipient of a MacLean-Hunter journalist award. He was a program officer in Indigenous Arts for a number of years at The Canada Council for the Arts. His novel, Tobacco Wars, was published by Quattro Books, and he is urgently working on a new book, inspired by archival photographs of Indigenous communities from the 1940s to the 1970s, that will be published by Penguin Random House in fall, 2018. He currently resides in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. He is Willow Cree and a band member of Beardy’s and Okemasis.