Work, as a creative and necessary act, has been a part of Indigenous life since long before contact. Less covered is the adaptation and adoption of modern forms of work.
Work is a recurring theme in the Indigenous Archival Photo Project, which I curate and which was first inspired by my late mother around 10 years ago. A residential school survivor, she knew first-hand the tribulations she faced: residential schools in Canada served much the same purposes as boarding schools in the United States for Indigenous students. Yet she made another comment to me at the time, that there was much focus on negative things and trauma in the coverage of Indigenous peoples and that other aspects of Indigenous life were being overlooked.
What she was referring to could be called simply resilience, which kept culture, tradition and languages alive during the hardest of times. Also joy and hard work: two aspects missing from the common stereotypes of Indigenous peoples. For too long, photography has been just merely an extractive process for Indigenous communities: repeating cliches like the “noble savage,” “the disappearing race,” or appealing to a voyeuristic gaze framing Indigenous people in regalia—the beads and feathers thing—that frames the subjects as being frozen in time, stuck in tradition, or reduced to one-dimensional, Hollywood-like characters.
I began to search through archives, seeking not residential or boarding school photos or other images of colonization, but images reflecting a different reality: that of integrity, strength, resourcefulness, hard work, family, and play. When I began to post these archival photographs online, I was surprised by the response. Many viewers had never seen the photographs before, but posted to say “That’s my grandmother!” or “That’s me, 42 years ago!” This act of naming brought another layer to the photographs: visual reclamation.
Gradually, as the Indigenous Archival Photo Project gained attention on social media, it became evident that this was about more than a corrective of captions or placing images, it was revealing an untold history of how Indigenous communities had held together during even the most difficult times.
How we view the photograph is dependent on where we are coming from. Are we looking with an outsider’s distanced gaze? An anthropological approach to study of the “other”? Or a more intimate reconnection to past family, kinship, and lifestyle? From the images posted, people from diverse Indigenous communities, many of whom had not seen the photographs before, were able to identify family members, themselves, relatives, and friends. A further dialogue, through comments to the photographs, provided a unique narrative that went beyond the image—giving context and history, and often leading me to other related photos.
It was liberating the archival image from the institution and re-engaging it with the community.
In this light, the archival project has not just been about naming the unnamed in captions or correcting institutional categorizations, but also in correcting these stereotypes and showing Indigenous people as three-dimensional, adaptable, and contemporary for their times. This involves humor, social activities, family relationships, and yes, work.
Work, as a creative and necessary act, has been a part of Indigenous life since long before contact. Hunting and gathering, agriculture and harvesting plants and fruits from the land, are timeless pursuits. Today, the threads of these activities remain in various forms, depending on where on the continent one is looking. The crafting and making of clothing, shelter, medicines, and adornments like beadwork and regalia are also integral to those concepts of work. What is less covered is the adaptation and adoption of modern forms of work which runs counter to notions of Indigenous reality being simply traditional or of the land.
Mohawk ironworkers from Kahnawake reserve in Quebec have for decades worked on the skyscrapers of Manhattan and other cities. In the 1940s, dozens of Mohawk families settled in Brooklyn, creating a neighborhood soon known as Little Caughnawaga. As the patronizing effects of Indian policies began to wane in both the United States and Canada, Indigenous women entered the workforce, many as nurses and teachers, paving the way for the Indigenous women of today who are scientists and doctors.
On the east coast, Maliseet, Micmac, Passamaquoddy, and Penobscot worked the fisheries, and on the west coast and Alaska, Tlingit, Tsimshian and Haida worked the fishing canneries, while in the southwest Navajo raises livestock and in the Arctic Inuit served as rangers and guides. The engagement of Indigenous people with work is ageless, adaptive, and continent-wide.
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