- Alison K. Brown (Author), Laura Peers (Author), and Kainai Nation (Author)
'Pictures Bring Us Messages' /Sinaakssiiksi aohtsimaahpihkookiyaawa: Photographs and Histories from the Kainai Nation. University of Toronto Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Dee Horne
Contemporary museum curators are well aware of the ethical responsibilities not only of caring for the museum holdings, but also of attempting to rectify colonial practices or at the very least consulting with First Nations communities and establishing respectful and collaborative relationships. Alison Brown and Laura Peers, a researcher and a curator from the Pitt Rivers Museum of the University of Oxford, found 33 photographs of Kainai (also known as Blood) people that Beatrice Blackwood took in August 1925, brought back to the museum and catalogued and archived. In 2001, Brown and Peers decided to take the photographs back to the Kainai Nation and consult with members of the community to understand how the descendants of the subjects in the photographs view the images and the stories and histories that the pictures relate. Specifically, they set out to examine the photographs and colonial issues of race and acculturation of Blackwood’s time as well as to view the photographs in the geographical and cultural contexts of the Kanai people today and to respect the need of the Kanai people today to articulate their past as well as their present experiences and to share these images with their children. In ‘Pictures Bring Us Messages’ Brown and Peers discuss why such collaborative practices are essential and share their own process of collaborating with the Kainai Nation.
The subject of the book is as much about Brown and Peers and the relationship they have with members of the Kanai community as it is about Blackwood. Brown and Peers looked at the photographs, along with field notes and a diary, and consider them in the context of Blackwood’s time and in light of the different meanings the project had for anthropologists then and now. Trained as an anthropologist, specializing in physical anthropology, Blackwood’s goal “involved gathering genealogies and collecting measurements to try to understand which behaviours and physical appearances were responses to social and economic circumstances and which were inherited.” Funded by a Laura Spelman Rockefeller Memorial Fellowship in the social sciences, Blackwood took a three-year research trip to Canada and the United States between 1924 and 1927 to conduct physical measurements and mental tests of diverse cultural groups. In addition to her interest in community members’ transitions between tradition and modern times, Blackwood was “interested in how older, ‘purer’ groups responded to racial ‘mixing.’” That she did not find the correlation between intelligence and physical characteristics racist or problematic is not surprising since Blackwood was part of the very colonial society whose assimilationist efforts she documented. What is surprising is that Brown and Peers often present Blackwood and her research in a more sympathetic light and speculate, rather than provide substantive evidence that Blackwood became more aware of the racist implications of her research and questioned it.
Still, the authors are to be commended for their “collaborative, community-based methodology in which the Kainai worked with them to shape the research questions and process, advised them on cultural protocol, and reviewed research findings.” They follow the model of Roslyn Poignant’s Encounter at Nagalarramba (1996) in which the author returned photographs that her husband had taken several decades earlier to the Australian Aboriginal community. Of particular relevance to museum curators and archivists is the detail that Brown and Peers provide about the formal protocol agreement that was the basis for the Kainai-Oxford Photographic Histories Project as well as the process for ensuring that mutual goals were realized.
The book is well organized. The authors discuss the context in which photos were produced and offer examples of Kainai resistance to assimilation (Chapter One); Blackwood’s images in the context of her career and her scholarly objectives and challenges (Chapter Two); their own methodology, objectives, and process (Chapter Three); the responses of those Kainai community members whom Brown interviewed to the photographs and the pervading themes that came out of these interviews (Chapter Four); the implications of the Kainai meanings and institutional implications, specifically the need for museums to include indigenous perspectives and to consult and make their collections accessible to the communities (Chapter Five); access and stewardship, and ways these might be improved (Chapter Six); their conclusions, advocating collaboration and co-management and foregrounding the imperative of consultation and respective relations with the community (Conclusions).
What messages do these pictures bring and what stories do they tell? This depends not only on who is taking or viewing the picture but also on why they do so. To many members of the Kainai community, these photographs are a record of their history and connection with their relations. The photographs also reflect, and are a product of, a colonial relationship. Still the photographs do illustrate the transition between traditional and modern practices, and the social conditions and relationships that informed them. Specifically, Blackwood documented colonizers’ efforts to assimilate Kainai and to deprive them of their traditions in her photographs of residential school children. We see the effects of the agrarian revolution and struggle for land and rights of the Blood people. And we hear stories that make us laugh if only to mask the underlying tragedy. For instance, Ponokaiksiksinam (Martin Heavy Head) relates how his great-grandfather took a trip only to discover that the “whole Reserve was following them!” Ponokaiksiksinam explains that this was but one of the ways that the Bloods resisted government officials who tried to make them farm. Through such acts of resistance the Kainai people survive. While collaborative projects like the one documented in this book are a step in the right direction, one can hope that someday soon the Kainai will write their own book and re-claim these and other cultural artifacts that have been taken from them.
- Envisioning Resurgence by Dory Nason
Books reviewed: In the Belly of a Laughing God: Humour and Irony in Native Women’s Poetry by Jennifer Andrews and The Edward Curtis Project: A Modern Picture Story by Marie Clements and Rita Leistner
- Indigenous Critical Aesthetics by Allison Hargreaves
Books reviewed: From Mushkegowuk to New Orleans: A Mixed Blood Highway by Joseph Boyden and Art as Performance: Story as Criticism: Reflections on Native Literary Aesthetics by Craig Womack
- Hybrid Imaginings by Warren Cariou
Books reviewed: I Knew Two Métis Women: The Lives of Dorothy Scofield and Georgina Houle Young by Gregory Scofield, Red Blood: One (Mostly) White Guy's Encounters with the Native World by Robert Hunter, The Visions and Revelations of St. Louis the Métis by David Day, and Thunder Through My Veins: Memories of a Metis Childhood by Gregory Scofield
- The Need for New Perspectives by Neal McLeod
Books reviewed: The Pleasure of the Crown: Anthropology, Law and First Nations by Dara Culhane and Walking in Indian Moccasins: The Native Policies of Tommy Douglas and the CCF by F. Laurie Barron
- Speaking to Colonization by Emma LaRocque
Books reviewed: A Tortured People: The Politic of Colonization by Howard Adams and Stories of the Road Allowance People by Maria Campbell and Sherry Farrell Racette
MLA: Horne, Dee. Collaborative Research. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 13 Dec. 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #192 (Spring 2007), Gabrielle Roy contemporaine/The Contemporary Gabrielle Roy. (pg. 183 - 185)
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