Luminance - Pride and Dignity: Aboriginal Portraits - Exhibitions - Library and Archives Canada
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Luminance - Aboriginal photographic portraits

by Jeff Thomas,
Guest Curator, Aboriginal Portraits from
the National Archives of Canada

"A viewer is said to simply apply to the present what he has learned about things [Indians] in the past; or, as the contention has been worded sometimes, we see things as we do because of what we expect them to look like."1(Rudolf Arnheim)

What is a real Indian supposed to look like? As an Iroquoian living and working in the contemporary world, this question has formed the basis of both my work as a photographer and more recently, as guest curator for the exhibition, Aboriginal Portraits from the National Archives of Canada.

When I first came to the National Archives in 1993, I was determined to find photographs that would illuminate the Aboriginal world as more than just a series of clichéd images of war bonnet/buckskin/beadwork-wearing Chiefs, war dancing warriors, submissive squaws and papooses. Although the popular Indian photographs were taken by non-native photographers for a non-native audience, this does not mean they are without importance for the Aboriginal community today. (Fig. 1) My research into the National Archives' photographic collection has revealed a rich visual history, that, when properly understood, transcends the stereotype and reveals the humanity of the Aboriginal world.

Figure 1 Wanduta (Red Arrow), a Dakota (Sioux) man from the Oak Lake area in Manitoba. National Archives of Canada,


[click on the image for an enlargement]