Guest curator: Jeff Thomas

Banner for the guest curator series. CANADA 150 is in red along the left side of the banner and then the bilingual text: Canada: Who Do We Think We Are? and under that text is Guest curator series.Canada: Who Do We Think We Are? is a new exhibition by Library and Archives Canada (LAC) marking the 150th anniversary of Canadian Confederation. This exhibition is accompanied by a year-long blog series.

Join us every month during 2017 as experts, from LAC, across Canada and even farther afield, provide additional insights on items from the exhibition. Each “guest curator” discusses one item, then adds another to the exhibition—virtually.

Be sure to visit Canada: Who Do We Think We Are? at 395 Wellington Street in Ottawa between June 5, 2017, and March 1, 2018. Admission is free.


Canada Day 2005, Brandon, Manitoba, Canada, by Jeff Thomas, 2005

First Nations figure set in front of a train marked “Canada” with grain graffiti on its side.

Canada Day 2005, Brandon, Manitoba, Canada from The Delegate on Tour Series by Jeff Thomas, 2005 (MIKAN 3932014) ©Jeff Thomas

For Iroquois artist Jeff Thomas, Canada has always excluded his people. He made this series in order to symbolically place them back in the national picture. Each photograph takes back a major symbol of Canadian nationhood.


Tell us about yourself

I was born and raised in Buffalo, New York, and I am an enrolled member of the Six Nations reserve near Brantford, Ontario. I am a self-taught photographer and curator. My career in photography began from a near-fatal car accident in 1979 that left me with a permanent disability from a spinal cord injury. I turned to my interest in photography to begin the process of rebuilding life. My career began with two objectives: to address the absences of contemporary and of historical Indigenous photographers in archival collections. My primary objective was to address the absence and invisibility of urban-based Iroquois like me.

In 1990, I was living in Winnipeg, Manitoba, when I discovered, during a research project at the Manitoba Museum, that LAC had a complete copy of Edward Curtis’s 20-volume series The North American Indian. Curtis played the role of antagonist in my early career, primarily because of his staged images of an Indigenous tribal life, which had vanished decades before. Very little was known about Curtis—wanting to know more, I moved to Ottawa in 1993 and began the next stage of my career.

Is there anything else about this item that you feel Canadians should know?

In 1999, my son Bear was moving to the West Coast, so I was losing my muse. Bear had started posing for me in 1984. Around the same time that Bear was leaving, I received a box in the mail from documentary filmmaker Ali Kazimi. Ali had made a documentary film about my work titled Shooting Indians: A Journey with Jeff Thomas. Ali introduces the film by holding up a plastic Indian and cowboy. And when I opened the box, I saw the plastic Indians and the cowboy, with a note from Ali saying, “You will find something interesting to do with them.”

Indians on Tour began in the summer of 2000 during a walk around the Parliament Hill area in Ottawa. I had a plastic toy Indian figure in my camera bag, and when I stopped to photograph a statue of an Indian hunter, I placed the toy Indian in front of the bronze hunter and photographed the two. What transpired when I saw the photograph was a new level of possibilities for me in addressing absences of Indigenous representation in the everyday world. From that point, I started taking the plastic figures with me wherever I travelled. I eventually added new Indian figures that I discovered in tourist shops, and to make posing them less reliant on a flat surface, I started making portable dioramas for the figures, mounted on a portable light stand.

Small light-brown First Nations figure set in front of Indian hunter statue. Tall office buildings and trees can be seen in the background.

War Dancer and Indian Hunter Statue by Jeff Thomas in Ottawa, 2000 © Jeff Thomas

In 2005, I was in Brandon, Manitoba, for an opening of my work, and since the next day was Canada Day, I drove around the city looking for an interesting site to pose the delegate. When I saw the grain car with “Canada” and some graffiti on its side, I knew I had found the site for my Canada Day image.

Tell us about another related item that you would like to add to the exhibition

A black-and-white photo of a Dakota First Nation woman wearing a striped dress under a long beaded breastplate. It is matched with a necklace, long earrings and braids.

Studio portrait of Dakota First Nation (Sioux) woman (MIKAN 3258922)

In 1994, LAC hired me to write new captions for photographs showing Indigenous people, with culturally insensitive words in the old captions. One image stands out from my project. I wrote a new caption for a photograph showing a full-length image of an Indigenous woman. She was probably a mother, wife, grandmother and elder for her community. The caption was “Sioux Squaw”; squaw is considered a very derogatory word. The caption I wrote was simply “Dakota Woman.”

An important point is that the original caption was not deleted, so researchers will see both captions in the database. The new caption inspired a researcher to try and identify the woman, and the new information he found was subsequently added to the database caption. It was amazing to see the impact that changing two words had on one photograph. I suspect that once more Indigenous people use the database, someone from her community will add her name to the caption.

Biography

A colour photograph of a lightly bearded man smiling at the camera.

Jeff Thomas credit Justin Wonnacott

Jeff Thomas is an urban-based Iroquois, self-taught photo-based artist, writer, public speaker and curator, living in Ottawa, Ontario. He has works in major collections in Canada, the United States and Europe. Jeff’s most recent solo shows were Mapping Iroquoia: Cold City Frieze, McMaster Museum of Art, Hamilton, Ontario; Resistance Is NOT Futile, Stephen Bulger Gallery, Toronto, Ontario; and The Dancing Grounds, Wanuskewin Heritage Park, Saskatoon, Saskatchewan.

Thomas has also been in many group shows, including l:ke – Toronto: Tributes + Tributaries, 1971–1989, Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto, Ontario; Land/Slide: Possible Futures, Markham, Ontario; SAKAHÀN, National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa, Ontario; and UNMASKING: Arthur Renwick, Adrian Stimson, Jeff Thomas, Canadian Cultural Centre, Paris, France. In 1998, he was awarded the Canada Council for the Arts’ prestigious Duke and Duchess of York Prize in Photography. He was inducted into the Royal Canadian Academy of Art in 2003. In 2008, he received the Karsh Award in photography.

Related resources

Voices of the Past

By Harriett Mathews

Library and Archives Canada (LAC) has roughly 30 million photographs from various collections in its possession, a large number of which have Aboriginal content. During my time here as part of the Federal Student Work Experience Program (FSWEP) working on Project Naming, I have been able to explore the database and discover breath-taking photographs from different Aboriginal communities all over Canada.

Correcting the Historical Record

Although the photographs themselves are quite wonderful to behold, the records often leave something to be desired. For many Aboriginal images, the titles contain antiquated and offensive language, or are simply vague. It is imperative that these records be updated with modern terminology and information gathered from members of the communities where these photographic records originated. The involvement of Aboriginal people in this process is crucial because these records depict their history, their culture, and their families; their voices are the ones that have been omitted and lost. As I myself belong to the First Nations, I have greatly enjoyed being able to share my culture and help restore the lost voices of photographs by helping to update the records.

One example is an image titled “Dirty Daisy and her baby.” The photograph depicts an Inuit woman and her child suffering from malnutrition. “Daisy” was not the name of this woman; it is more likely the name that was assigned to her by a government official. By calling this woman “Dirty Daisy”, the individual who wrote the caption effectively stripped her of both her dignity and her name. Hopefully, through Project Naming, the real name of this woman and her child will be uncovered. In the meantime, the record has been updated so that the title now reads “An Inuit woman (Daisy) feeding her baby while seated in a tent in Chesterfield Inlet (Igluligaarjuk), Nunavut.”

Black and white photograph of a gaunt looking Inuit woman and child sitting in a small tent with cooking supplies in the background. The woman is feeding the baby with a rectangular bottle.

Inuit woman (Daisy) feeding her baby while seated in a tent in Chesterfield Inlet (Igluligaarjuk), Nunavut (MIKAN 3855414)

Improving Access – Photo by Photo

Since Project Naming began in 2002, more than 2,000 photographs have been identified. Additionally, thousands of records have had inaccurate and insensitive terminology removed from their titles and moved into a general notes field in order to provide historical context and perspective. Identifying names, places, events, and cultural objects facilitates the sharing of Aboriginal culture and stories with all who are interested in searching the archives. These include stories about Aboriginal politicians, for example Inuit Senator Charlie Watt who represents Quebec. I had the pleasure of working on DIAND Album 38, which contains several photographs of young Charlie Watt and his parents, Daisy and Johnny Watt. The photographs take place at a party in Kuujjuaq (formerly Fort Chimo), Quebec, and even though the photographs are black and white, the vibrancy of that Inuit community shines through.

Photograph of a green album page with three black and white photographs (numbered 154, 156, and 157) with typed captions on white paper. The photograph in the top left corner is of an Inuit woman in a plain dress and plaid shawl standing on a porch with a little girl in a parka drinking glass of milk. The photograph in the top right corner is of two Inuit women in plaid shawls and flower headbands sitting in front of wooden crates, one holding an accordion, with a baby sitting in the foreground to the left and a little boy in dress clothes standing beside the woman with the accordion. The photograph at the bottom of the page is of a woman in a blazer and ribbon headband dancing with a man in a suit; the woman on the left is holding a man’s hand – the rest of the man is out of the shot – and there are three women and an oil lamp in the background.

Album page fifty-three with photographs of an Inuit woman and girl (Daisy Watt, possibly with Harriat Ruston), a group of Inuit women and children—Daisy Watt is playing the accordion, Christina Gordon is on the right, and Charlie Watt (Daisy’s son) is standing on the left—and S.J. Bailey and H. Lamberton dancing with two Inuit women—Daisy Watt is on the right with S.J. Bailey, the woman behind her is Susie, and Hannah (Susie’s sister) is on the left holding H. Lamberton’s hand—in Kuujjuaq (formerly Fort Chimo), Quebec (MIKAN 4326945)

Black and white photograph of five women, four of them seated and one on the far right standing with a baby wrapped in a plaid shawl. The woman in the centre of the photograph is playing an accordion, and the woman to her left has a young boy in her lap. Behind them are several wooden crates labeled “Marven’s Biscuits” and one marked “H.B.C. Wholesale Vancouver.”

A group of women and children at a party in Kuujjuaq (formerly Fort Chimo), Quebec, the woman playing the accordion is Lizzie Suppa and to her immediate left are Daisy Watt and Charlie Watt (Daisy’s son) (MIKAN 3855585)

Photograph of a green album page with three black and white photographs (numbered 158, 159, and 160) with typed captions on white paper. The photograph in the top left corner is of women and children sitting in front of several wooden crates labeled “Marven’s Biscuits” and one marked “H.B.C. Wholesale Vancouver.” The photograph in the top right corner is of two couples dancing while a woman plays the accordion. The photograph at the bottom of the page is of an Arctic ground squirrel in a grassy field with a rock in the foreground.

Album page fifty-four with photographs of a group of women and children [Lizzie Suppa is playing the accordion, seated to her left are Daisy Watt and Charlie Watt], two Inuit couples dancing [Johnny and Daisy Watt are on the left, on the far right is Lizzie (with her accordion again)], and a Siksik (an Arctic ground squirrel) (MIKAN 4326946)

Restoring Aboriginal Voices

All of these photographs are essential to the telling of Canadian history. They demonstrate the narrative of the relationship between Aboriginal people and the Canadian government, and most significantly, they tell the stories of the individuals in the photographs and share their culture. For decades, First Nations, the Metis Nation, and Inuit voices have been lost in these records. Project Naming is vital because it provides Aboriginal people a forum through which they can reclaim their stories and identities. I am glad that I have been able to contribute my voice, as a First Nations woman, to these records. There are so many stories to be told, and I am sure that as LAC continues to move forward in partnership with Aboriginal peoples, we will be able to hear them.


Harriett Mathews was an FSWEP student who worked in the Exhibition and Online Content Division at Library and Archives Canada during the summer of 2016.

Do you have Aboriginal ancestry? The census might tell you

Many individuals do genealogical research to determine whether they have an Aboriginal branch in their family tree. For some, this is simply to confirm or disprove a family story. For others, the research is connected to self-identity, empowerment, possible registration in Aboriginal organizations or funding connected to self-identification.

Library and Archives Canada (LAC) cannot make any determination about whether you are Aboriginal, but our documents can assist in your research.

Sadly, sometimes, our family stories are just that—stories. Likewise, family photographs may lead us to make false assumptions. Are we seeing something that is not really there?

You might find the answer in census returns.

Identifying First Nation, Métis or Inuit in historical census returns

Seeking an understanding of Aboriginal identity through family histories and genealogical research can be a challenging task in Canada. Two systems of definitions exist—one based in law and legislation, the other in family tradition and community practice. Continue reading

Project Naming is Expanding!

In early 2002, Library and Archives Canada (LAC) teamed up with the Nunavut Sivuniksavut Training Program and the Government of Nunavut’s Department of Culture, Language, Elders and Youth, to create Project Naming. The goal was to digitize photographs of Inuit from present-day Nunavut in LAC’s photographic collections in order to identify the people depicted in the images. At the time of the launch, LAC expected that the project would be concluded the following year. We never imagined that this initiative would become such a successful and popular project with the public.

To mark the annual National Aboriginal History Month in June 2015, LAC is pleased to announce the launch of Project Naming. While the project still includes communities located in Nunavut, it will be expanded to Inuit living in Inuvialuit (Northwest Territories), Nunavik (northern Quebec) and Nunatsiavut (Labrador), as well as First Nations and Métis communities in the rest of Canada. Project Naming: 2002–2012 will still be available online, but new content will only be added to the new project site.

Project Naming: 2002–2012 began with the digitization of 500 photographs from the Richard Harrington fonds. Since then, LAC has digitized approximately 8,000 photographs from many different government departments and private collections. Thanks to the enthusiasm and support from Inuit and non-Inuit researchers, nearly one-quarter of the individuals, activities or events portrayed in the images have been identified, and this information along with the images is now available in the database.

Over the years, LAC has received many wonderful stories and photographs from members of the public who have reconnected with their family and friends through the photographs. Among these was a photograph shared by the Kitikmeot Heritage Society that organized several community slide shows during the winter of 2011. Mona Tigitkok, an Elder from Kugluktuk, discovered her photograph as a young woman during one of these gatherings.

Colour photograph of an elderly Inuit woman wearing a fur-trimmed floral parka posing in front of a screen with a slide projection of her photograph when she was a young woman, taken at a community hall.

Mona Tigitkok posing with a picture of herself taken more than 50 years ago, Kugluktuk, Nunavut, February 2011. Credit: Kitikmeot Heritage Society.

Author and historian, Deborah Kigjugalik Webster, has used Project Naming, both personally and professionally. In her words:

I was first introduced to Project Naming a few years ago through my work in the Inuit heritage field, but there is also a personal connection for me—the database allows people to search by communities in Nunavut so I’ve discovered photographs of relatives and community members.

It was not uncommon in the past for photographers not to name the subjects of images. Often photo captions were simply “group of Eskimos” or “native woman” and so on. One afternoon, over tea, I showed some of the photographs from the Project Naming database to my mother, Sally Qimmiu’naaq Webster, and we were able to add a few names to faces from our home community of Baker Lake (Qamanittuaq). I felt a sense of satisfaction in identifying unnamed individuals in photographs and providing names to replace nondescript captions provided by the photographer. In a sense, when we do this we are reclaiming our heritage.

Photograph of a young Inuit woman wearing a turtle neck sweater looking away from the camera.

Photograph of the late Betty Natsialuk Hughson (identified by her relative Sally Qimmiu’naaq Webster). Taken in Baker Lake (Qamanittuaq), Nunavut, 1969 (MIKAN 4203863)

Project Naming allows people to not only identify individuals in images, but to add information including corrections to the spelling of names in an online form. It is well worth checking out the database, especially with an Elder, because seeing the image opens up discussion.

As part of my work I manage a Facebook page Inuit RCMP Special Constables from Nunavut to acknowledge the contributions of our Inuit Specials and pay tribute to them. Last year I posted a portrait photograph that I found on the Project Naming database of Jimmy Gibbons, taken in Arviat in 1946. Special Constable Gibbons was a remarkable man who joined the RCMP in 1936 and retired to a pension in 1965. This post was met with many enthusiastic likes, shares and comments from S/Cst. Gibbons’ descendants saying that he was their father, uncle or great-grandfather. Some people also simply said “thank you.” Shelley Ann Voisey Atatsiaq proudly commented, “No wonder I wrote earlier that I highly respect the R.C.M.P. I’ve got some R.C.M.P-ness in my blood. Thank you for sharing!”

Black-and-white photograph of a close-up of an Inuit man wearing a knitted vest and tie standing outside.

Jimmy Gibbons, Royal Canadian Mounted Police Special Constable, Arviat, Nunavut, August 1, 1946 (MIKAN 4805042)

For more information about the history of the project, read the article Project Naming / Un visage, un nom, International Preservation News, No. 61, December 2013, pp. 20–24.

As with the first phase of the project, LAC wants to hear from you through The Naming Continues form.

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