Residential school photographs part 2; Tibet (?)

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First and foremost, as a born-and-bred Canadian, I grew up learning about the exploitation, forced assimilation, and essential whitewashing of First Nations people in school, so our continued focus on photographs often featuring residential schools is relevant and interesting, but incredibly sobering. I will try my best to be sensitive to these issues and the traumatic memories that are still near to the hearts of many individuals.

(Secondly, I am very sleep-deprived, so I apologize in advance if any of this does not read smoothly or if any sentences don’t make grammatical sense. The cogs are turning, but more slowly than usual.)

Krisztina Laszlo’s “Ethnographic Archival Records and Cultural Property” focuses on the seeming erasure of First Nations culture when archiving records. She suggests that assimilation causes knowledge to be “lost or diluted” (300) and goes on to explain that “Aboriginal communities…consider traditional knowledge to be an expression of the human soul in all its aspects” (300). By putting certain records into museums and archives, First Nations presence is increased, but there are also other parameters that must be considered. Essentially, Laszlo comes to the conclusion that certain images, particularly those “that have important sacred and ritual properties attached to them” (306) must be restricted.

The Jean Telfer fonds include photographs of Morley Residential School in Alberta; the photos taken from outside don’t include any people, so are likely somewhat less tender than the photos that focus on the faces of the First Nations children, for example. In one photo (“School children during visit by Governor General Lord Tweedsmuir”), no faces can be seen clearly, so all the children blend into the background – this is indicative of their lack of importance as individuals and placement as part of a group.

Laszlo talks a little bit about oral culture and how spoken words are not ‘things’ in the same way that physical objects are (here, she quotes UBC anthropologist Dr. Julie Cruikshank). While true, this seems to negate the First Nations’ preference for oral tradition and history; when a history is recorded as a physical ‘thing,’ it is not typical of the culture it attempts to preserve, so may not be as authentic. The slight variation in many traditional First Nations stories is what makes them personal (one child’s grandmother may tell a slightly different story from another child’s grandmother); once streamlined into one written story, it loses some of its impact.

Jeannette Allis Bastian’s “Reading Colonial Records Through an Archival Lens: The Provenance of Place, Space and Creation” finds its roots in Said’s theory of Orientalism. Bastian clarifies: “Orientalism also defines the line between the oriental and the occidental – the Western and the Other – where the Orient is heathen, irrational, and exotic, the very antithesis of the Occidental which is rational, civilized and Christian.” (272) This exotification is clear in the Eric Parker fonds (part of the Museum of Anthropology collection). The Tibetan people are photographed in intricate costumes, which is not only visually appealing, but also serves to further distance them from colonizers of European ancestry, who likely know very little about Tibetan culture.

The captions of the photos in the Eric Parker fonds are also interesting – several are titled “Bride and groom posed for photograph”. The word ‘posed’ is very telling – this is not a natural or candid moment, and is probably not one that would be photographed or preserved int he same way in Tibetan culture.

It is also worth noting that I had to do an fair amount of digging and clicking through this collection to discover that the photographs were taken in Tibet; it wasn’t clearly displayed beneath each photo. I won’t dwell on this too much, but it seems interesting that we are discussing silencing and identity erasure in reference to these collections. They seem to shed light on a different way of life, and yet they do it in a way that not only exotifies and objectifies the people in the photographs, but also does not directly document their location or heritage, so it is difficult to trace and difficult to paint a full picture of their lives.

To conclude – while the photographs in the Jean Telfer and Eric Parker fonds may record some kind of history, they remove the agency of those in the photos, so the story being told is not authentic, but is rather being controlled by an outside influencer. Several weeks ago we discussed human desire to create a narrative out of historical puzzle pieces; the narrative here appears disjointed and biased. Perhaps the traditional archive format may not be the right way to give a voice to people who are traditionally silenced; hopefully another (more suitable) discourse will make itself clear.


Works Cited:

  • Bastian, Jeannette Allis. “Reading Colonial Records Through an Archival Lens: The Provenance of Place, Space and Creation.” Archival Science 6 (2006): 267–284.
  • Laszlo, Krisztina. “Ethnographic Archival Records and Cultural Property.” Archivaria 61 (2001): 299 – 307.