Three years ago, as an experiment, I began what has become the Indigenous Archival Photo Project. There are images of First Nations people, Métis people, and Inuit in the collections of historical societies, museums, and archives—often without any accompanying notes about the people who are in the photographs or the photographers who took them. I started sharing images on Twitter and Facebook in hopes of filling these gaps. As people recognized the subjects in the photographs and tried to identify dates and locations, sharing the images with their relatives in turn, the project gained its own momentum. It became an exercise in visual reclamation and digital repatriation of the photographs themselves—a return to community.
This particular set of photographs was taken in the 1950s and early 1960s by photojournalist Rosemary Gilliat Eaton, at a time when the daily lives of Indigenous peoples were largely invisible and of little interest to the settler population (settler is a term for non-Indigenous inhabitants of Canada). First Nations, Métis, and Inuit communities faced multiple atrocities: Children were separated from their families and forced into foster care, adopted by non-Indigenous families, or sent into residential schools. The Indian Act stripped individuals of their rights, and the pass system (an informal process by which First Nations people who wanted to leave their reserves had to obtain written permission from a federal Indian agent) largely confined First Nations people to their communities. The government assigned Inuit dehumanizing numbered identification tags.