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TURTLE ISLAND at the Moonspeaker

The Moonspeaker:
Where Some Ideas Are Stranger Than Others...

Properly Project Naming

This is very much a companion piece and follow up to Tagging the Inuit. Both Contested Documents stand alone, but it won't hurt to read Tagging the Inuit first, because it explains the great significance of Inuit naming practices. Name giving is about family and community ties, as is likely true cross-culturally. What is easy for us to not notice unless the naming practices we grew up with are interfered with, is that naming is also about handing down and connected us into the framework of our cultures and homelands. The growing number of Indigenous peoples across Turtle Island resuming their proper names, names handed down in their families and in their Indigenous languages is a key part of what can fairly be called a true Indigenous renaissance. Given their experience with being tagged like animals or birds and then arbitrarily named for "administrative convenience" that turned out to be anything but convenient even for the colonial administrators, Inuit have a special interest and concern with naming projects. They also have a challenging relationship with photography, due in part to a colonial obsession with photographing and claiming them as evidence for canadian claims on "the north." As a result, Inuit are among the most photographed Indigenous people on the planet for the first half of the twentieth century. The vast majority of those photographs never stayed or returned to Inuit communities, and more often than not were and are archived in federal collections in ottawa or in one of a range of private archives, making them inaccessible to Inuit. Then something very important happened in 2001. But to get to that event, we need to learn about one more organization, Nunavut Sivuniksavut.

Nunavut Sivuniksavut "Our Land is Our Future" had modest beginnings in 1985 as a program to train young Inuit so that they could report to their communities about the process that led to the creation of Nunavut in 1999, based in ottawa. From there it has been growing at a steady and solid clip, so that now it is a college program with post-secondary recognition, a capacity of 54 students and many more interested in taking part. It's a remarkable and wonderful example of a program designed by the Indigenous community it serves to meet Indigenous defined needs. One of the instructors working in this program, Murray Angus, regularly took his students to visit library and archives canada (LAC), where they searched for photographs taken in their communities. Inevitably, they observed that most Inuit in the photographs were not identified at all, and Angus came up with the idea for Project Naming to properly name and label all the people photographed they could. Project partners Nunavut Sivuniksavut; Nunavut Department of Culture, Languages, Elders and Youth; and LAC began work in late 2001. There was plenty to do before any photographs could be labelled.

An example of one of the photographs with now labelled and acknowledged subjects from Project Naming. This is Rosie Okpik and her son Dennis Okpik in Iqaluit, Nunavut, circa 1964. An example of one of the photographs with now labelled and acknowledged subjects from Project Naming. This is Rosie Okpik and her son Dennis Okpik in Iqaluit, Nunavut, circa 1964.
An example of one of the photographs with now labelled and acknowledged subjects from Project Naming. This is Rosie Okpik and her son Dennis Okpik in Iqaluit, Nunavut, circa 1964.

To begin with, the project team had to make it possible for Inuit communities at large to see the photographs, including looking at them under magnification. Many of these photographs are old and therefore fragile and not up for extensive travel or handling. So the team set about scanning a portion of known photographs for the communities of then current Nunavut Sivuniksavut students. It isn't noted explicitly in the description on the Project Naming site that I have found so far, but it is not unlikely there was some modest image processing applied as well, such as despeckling and adjusting contrast. The scans were burnt onto cd-roms, and the students took these and laptops home with them to work with their communities to identify as many of the people in the photographs as possible. The number of successful identifications certainly surprised the people who wrote these events up for the Project site, noting that over 75% of the people in the photographs were identified. These results came from Phase 1 of the Project, which is ongoing and has expanded to scanning and identifying First Nations and Métis in photographs as well. With almost 10 000 photographs now digitized and available to view remotely by searching the LAC collections through its websites. However, there is still a place for DVDs and hard drives to make them accessible to Indigenous communities with poor or no internet access.

The project description at the LAC tends to emphasize the urgency of this project for Elders, many of whom were subjects of the photographs or knew the subjects personally. Of course, that is quite true from the simple human fact that our Elders are getting ready to return to the spirit world from where it is much harder for them to tell us about details of such things. Today, when we are all constantly fielding and resisting demands for information about ourselves for the sake of corporate profits, it's refreshing to read about how the potential loss of sensitive information was described and discussed for this Project at its start. Here are a couple of representative quotes:

Today's Elders may be the last people able to identify these individuals from the past, whose names might otherwise remain lost forever.

And just a bit further on:

As the majority of Inuit depicted in the photographs were not identified, Angus proposed Project Naming as a way to give people from Nunavut access to the photographic collections of Inuit held at LAC, to foster dialogue between Nunavut youth and Elders, and to reclaim these "lost" names.

I must admit to quite liking that they put scare quotes on "lost." We get the subtle and unmistakable point that they weren't really lost so much as ignored, and this is an injustice that is now being rectified as much as possible.

The first exhibit for the Project was held in 2004, and research to find and gather further information on the photographs has continued through Phase II work carried out between 2005 and 2007. The broader First Nations and Métis research began in 2008 or 2009, building on the experience and tools developed for the Inuit collections. This means that descriptions of this type will gradually become much less common in the LAC image archives, "Two Objibwe men in a canoe, Aboriginal men and boys in canoe at Gravel River, N.W.T., Blackfoot man on horse and woman on travois and two Objibwe women in a canoe." For those who would like to see the scanned album page this description comes from, typographical errors and all, LAC has you covered.

Copyright © C. Osborne 2021
Last Modified: Saturday, December 19, 2020 2:24:31