Sites of Cultural Erasure
Author: Taylor Leedahl
I am Canadian. I was born and raised in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. I am of predominantly Norwegian descent with accents of Irish, Scottish, and German, though there may be other European blood I’m unaware of that sails my veins. My Norwegian ancestors came to North America at the end of the 19th C and first settled in North and South Dakota. In Norway, my paternal surname was spelt “L-i-d-a-h-l;” an American immigration officer changed the spelling to “L-e-e-d-a-h-l” so Anglophones could better pronounce it. People frequently pronounce our last name wrong: if the immigration officer wanted to save us the humiliation he should have changed the spelling to “L-e-e-d-o-l-l.”
I had the fortune of knowing my father’s grandmother, Clara Parker. She made her own cola and had the most extensive salt and pepper shaker collection I have ever seen. She birthed six children and every time I smell fresh dill I think about her garden.
From my mother I’ve obtained the option for a German name: Herr. She was always embarrassed by it – “Herr Hitler,” she’d blush with convincing discomfort – and was happy to marry into a new one. Along with her last name, my mother also hates tradition: her town-hopping family never really kept any except that every time we get together we play cards. Five kinds of Rummy, Crib, Sequence, Thirty-One and each game comes with a coin bet. I could riffle shuffle above my head at the age of seven, and at age eight told my family that as soon as I turned nineteen I was headed to the casino. Thankfully I became interested in other things.
My maternal grandpa only told me one story about his childhood: in the 1930s he and his friends used to have pissing contests for pencils. My great grandfather committed suicide during the depression and my grandpa’s oldest brother died in a school fire in the same decade. I believe my grandfather thinks his youth was nothing to speak of to a child.
Now you know nearly as much of my family history as I do. Maybe the erasure of our mother heritage is a result of blending in with the British, standing stagnantly on the escalator of modernity ascending to a new national identity. Maybe the slow or complete lack of postal services between continents and unconnected regions prevented the arrival of postcards our family wanted to send to one another.
My family’s deficient cultural heritage leaves me chuckling at questions about my ethnicity. I’m Canadian, and to tell you the truth I’m still not sure what that means, even after those elementary school assignments where you write “what it means to be Canadian” on a construction-paper cut-out of a maple leaf or beaver. My enigmatic roots have the family culture parts of my identity grasping onto a gaggle of helium balloons: I don’t know where they’re going and don’t know when they’re going to pop.
Onions Grown at Gull Lake ...
Likewise, I am my ancestors, still holding onto the motion that carried them across the ocean, looking for a favourable place to land. What did entice them to come to the United States then over the border to Canada? Had emigrated friends and relatives sent them postcards that over-romanticized the bounty of the land such as in “Onions Grown at Gull Lake Will Bring Tears at 40 Paces” or the dramatic, otherworldly fishing derby indicated by “Great Sport Fishing Here, at Ponteix Sask, Canada.” These depictions were likely an oasis to those in overcrowded and famine-stricken countries. This early strain of manipulated photography would have had a strong effect on people in the late 19th C, much like many contemporary men and women become spellbound with glossy magazine models. These super-bucolic representations are obvious overstatements, but would have cast expectations for immigrating families nonetheless.
Great Sport Fishing Here ...
Pioneering was hard, and arriving with false anticipation didn’t make the task any easier. “Unloading of Settlers Effects. Swift Current, Spring of 1908,” is a scene from my own family’s history, I imagine. On the back of this particular postcard the sender, Ida, writes from Canada to an American: “ ... this will give you an idea of the baroness of the country hear[,] you get the blues when you get hear and hang right on to them [.] The crops are very poor. [sic]” Was it a depression like this that wiped out much of my Norwegian culture in only three generations? It’s possible that the situation was just too embarrassing to report back about. To my family the land was so barren in comparison to the explosive hallucinations of colonial propaganda, so empty they impregnated the landscape with a new identity that was infantile and only still crawling. Cultural identities are not raised overnight; it is the product of persistence and practice over extended periods of time.
Unloading of Settlers' Effects, Swift Current, 1906.
University of Saskatchewan Library Special Collections, LXX-1519
Postcards of children are particularly revealing because they exhibit an unchecked, uninhibited quality. While I can’t be sure of the ethnicity of the children in “Seeing Regina,” I know that their family emigrated from Europe. Their moods are unbridled: the child at the wheel frowns in disappointment as he “steers” the car facade through Regina; the girl in the bonnet is equally unimpressed; and the boy in the back, likely the eldest, hangs his arm nonchalantly from the simulated vehicle as he smiles at the photographer. Had a postcard sent to them by an aunt or uncle of Wascana Lake festooned with sailboats and the parliament buildings in the background promised a more exhilarating trip? When the children arrived was their excitement deflated upon discovering that the postcard was as ephemeral as their sightseeing excursion in the motionless automobile? Is this a photo of cultural erasure? Certainly the children could have just been having an off day or were impatient with the early camera’s long exposure time, but when your family history is vague, general prairie pioneer history fills in the stories and sentiments you didn’t inherit.
University of Saskatchewan Library Special Collections, LXX-352
If my family’s heritage doesn’t define my identity, then why is it so important to confront? Over the past year I’ve been enrolled in courses on First Nations art, both historical and contemporary. Art is an intimate way to learn about a culture, especially Aboriginal art, which was traditionally integrated into everyday life, and continues to be a powerful and important form of expression and political tool for many Aboriginal artists. After studying Aboriginal art and the ongoing repatriation process – the reclaiming of First Nations cultural property –, my sense of identity and responsibility as a Canadian has changed. Among many things, this knowledge made me confront my identity, which is sculpted by the arts and a forthright sense of my gender and sexuality, but I realized, had little to do with the origins of my family. Education done right is tough love – it’s personal and taught me that a bold cultural identity has the power to bridge the gap that genetic factors alone cannot cross.
Some chasms are created in family histories by distance, and conversely rifts are also created by partial or inaccurate history telling. In “When is a Photograph Worth a Thousand Words,” author Hulleah J. Tsinhnahjinnie goes through her family album, which is also not her personal album, but rather a cascade of historical photos of her Tuscaroran ancestors. She writes, “The complexity of the subject being photographed never seems to be included in the thousand words. It seems the thousand words get reduced to a generic title void of the subject’s voice, especially in the case of the indigenous subject.” 1 Saskatchewan postcards of First Nations do not stray from this trend, and those that feature children are an especially troubling chapter in the colonial narrative of cultural erasure.
Traditional objects were taken from First Nations under the pretext of the 1876 Indian Act that forbade Aboriginal people the right to express their cultures. Objects such as masks, shields, sacred medicine bundles, bentwood boxes, drums, and even the bones of ancestors were stolen and stored or put on display as artefacts ‘of a dying culture’ in museums. In fear of legal and Christian persecution, many First Nations people themselves burned their wealth of cultural substance. First Nations people were also barred from ceremonial practice: potlatches, the Sundance, winter ceremonies, and the Ghost dance to name a few. The loss of these objects, practices, land, and separation between children and their families are what threatened future generations of Aboriginal people. Anthropologists studying North American cultures falsely presumed that the supposed disappearance of these cultures was as true and natural as the “god-given” superiority of white people over the entire globe.2
It is with the same anthropological gaze that Aboriginal infants were photographed for postcard imagery: as waning specimens, the last remnants of a culture whose future is entirely uncertain. In “Brothers in Exile,” two infants are poised in cradle boards and the title suggests that they’ve been deported. But to where? The relationship between the foreground and background is subdued and ambiguous: it is difficult to tell if the children are laid on the floor or propped against the wall, there are no grounding shadows thus the background contents must have been doctored. By their wayward glances, the infants appear to be distracted by someone entertaining them from the sidelines, allowing the photographer to frame the babies in contentment with their banishment – as the title implies. The children’s origins are fully alive in the proficient work of the women who crafted their cradle boards. However, the styles of the boards are so dissimilar in materials (cotton vs. leather), method (appliqué or embroidery vs. little use of trade materials), colour (multi-tonal palette vs. two-tone palette, though changes to colour could be an addendum ), and design (corset style, handle shape, fringes vs. no fringes, and open toe vs. closed) that the boys seem to be from different nations. These two infants may not be brothers; however this is no concern to the photographer who wants to relate them only by their “Indianness” for the European public.
Our Legacy, “Brothers in Exile”
First Nations adults and children across North America were physically forced to pose for photographers and voyeuristic Europeans frantic for glimpses of “vanishing” Aboriginal cultures. 3 Infants are especially vulnerable to this phenomenon: postured and presented in ways that they or likely their relatives did not consent to. In “Tribulation,” an Aboriginal baby is in visible anxiety during a photo shoot that again removes the child from their cultural context and obscures his or her future. It is highly possible that this child had been forcibly removed from its family, and he or she may have ended up in the confines of the residential school system.
Our Legacy, “Tribulation”
It is contemptible that so many First Nations children were isolated from their families and cultural inheritance because of residential schools: their language and cultural practices expunged for ‘the future of the nation,’ their spirits physically and sexually abused at the cost of the government’s idea of nation building. Even more disconcerting is residential assimilation’s long legacy: from 1920 (when mandatory attendance took effect, though the system had existed since 1870) to 1996 when the last federally run residential school, the Gordon Residential School in Saskatchewan, closed its doors. There are other ominous postcards in the University of Saskatchewan Library Special Collection, such as all those of residential schools that do not feature a single child in them: only the stark architecture of imposed power and sometimes a headmaster in his black clerical outfit.
Despite the menace of colonialism, these cultures never died. They survived in the backbone of families, friends, teachings of elders, close-knit communities, the arts, and self-education. Like any living culture, the definition of Dakota, Lakota, Nakota, Sioux, Métis, and all First Nations across Canada have been adapted within time and space. First Nations people are continually redefining what it means to be contemporary Aboriginal people in Canada: from my perspective, I see that there are many difficult issues and stereotypes to combat, but there is confidence and reclamation that will only have a positive effect on the entire Aboriginal population and on our shared nationhood. This vibrant action and commitment to First Nations growth cultivates the cultural evolution that was impinged upon centuries ago.
Qu'Appelle Industrial School 1907
Colonialism in Canada is complex because it has affected every single person after European contact. I have presented my experience as a contemporary Caucasian, whose ethnic origins had broken down quite subtly through colonialism and nation building; in contrast to some of the severe injustices Aboriginal people face(d) in the re-posturing of North America. I, as a Canadian living in one of Canada’s highest Aboriginal concentrations, celebrate my responsibility to advocate for healing and unity, which is important on both sides of the equation. This responsibility has become an important part of my Canadian identity. Let us hope that respect and awe of a multi-tonal Canadian identity is bred into the bone of successive generations, where postcards sent inter-provincially and internationally embody a salutation of difference and eminent respect for one’s own authority over identity. Where no one is forced to pose and we all participate in the presentation of who we are.
1 James C. Faris, Navajo and photography: a Critical History of the Representation of an American People (Albuquerque, New Mexico: University of New Mexico Press, 1996), 152.
3 Halleah J. Tsinhnahjinnie, “When Is a Photograph Worth a Thousand Words,” in Photography’s Other Histories, ed. Pinney, Christopher and Nicolas Peterson (Duke University Press, 2003), 46.
4 There are plenty of criticisms of anthropological studies, however, the works of Saskatchewan-born Aboriginal art academic Gerald McMaster are primary texts on the issue.
Assembly of First Nations, “History of Indian Residential Schools,” History. http://www.afn.ca/residentialschools/history.html (accessed March 22, 2010).
Faris, James C. Navajo and photography: a Critical History of the Representation of an American People (Albuquerque, New Mexico: University of New Mexico Press, 1996).
Tsinhnahjinnie, Halleah J. “When Is a Photograph Worth a Thousand Words,” in Photography’s Other Histories, ed. Pinney, Christopher and Nicolas Peterson (Duke University Press, 2003).
I must acknowledge my Aboriginal Art History and Contemporary Aboriginal Art professor at the University of Saskatchewan, Mary Longman, whose lectures and course materials have provided me with priceless knowledge and nourished my Canadian identity.
University of Saskatchewan Library Special Collections. Canadiana Postcards,” Onions Grown at Gull Lake will bring tears at 40 paces,” n.d.
University of Saskatchewan Library Special Collections. Canadiana Postcards, “Great Sport Fishing Here, at Ponteix Sask, Canada,” n.d.
University of Saskatchewan Library Special Collections. Canadiana Postcards, “seeing Regina,” n.d.
University of Saskatchewan Library Special Collections. Postcard Views of Indigenous Peoples, “Brothers in Exile,” 1903.
University of Saskatchewan Library Special Collections. Postcard Views of Indigenous Peoples, “Tribulation,” 1903.
University of Saskatchewan Library Special Collections. “Qu'Appelle Industrial School,” 1907.