Sunday January 17, 2016

Paul Seesequasis: Images like Whitesboro's official seal dehumanize indigenous peoples

An archival image titled In profile (Cree) ~ Waskaganish, Quebec 1926 alongside the current official emblem of Whitesboro, N.Y.

An archival image titled In profile (Cree) ~ Waskaganish, Quebec 1926 alongside the current official emblem of Whitesboro, N.Y. (L.T. Burwash/Supplied)

Listen 7:01

Thanks to mascots on sports jerseys, headdresses on lingerie models and offensive language in clothing lines, the issue of indigenous representation comes up again and again.

The town of Whitesboro, N.Y., has now made international headlines for its official seal. The round emblem features a cartoon-like picture of two men: a white man who appears to be strangling an indigenous man, who is leaning back with his mouth hanging open.

According to Whitesboro officials, the emblem dates back to the early 1900s and depicts a wrestling match between village founder Hugh White and an Oneida man. White won the match and, as the story goes, the lasting respect and goodwill of the Oneida People.

Despite the historical roots of the image, many people have found it offensive and a petition was started to change it. Recently, the town of Whitesboro voted overwhelmingly to keep it.

Paul Seesequasis

Paul Seesequasis, is optimistic that perceptions are changing. (Supplied)

"For me it just reveals the lack of awareness, a completely ahistorical view of the relationship between, in this case, Oneida and settlers," said Saskatoon-based writer and editor Paul Seesequasis.

Besides being historically inaccurate, he said, images such as the Whitesboro seal further dehumanize indigenous peoples because while Hugh White is named, the Oneida man is not.

Seesequasis is very familiar with images and representation of First Nations people. Every day for almost two years, he has been sharing archival images of indigenous people doing everyday things on his social media accounts.

Girl fishing on the Skeena

Girl fishing on the Skeena (Gitxsan) ~ Kitwanga, B.C. 1915 (James Topley )

"A lot of them are just people living in everyday clothes in everyday life," Seesequasis said. "I kind of avoided those types photos where it's obvious the photographer came into the community with a suitcase full of props to put on people to fit his or her idea of what an Indian should look like."

Seesequasis began the project almost two years ago to change perceptions and to spread awareness about Canada's historical relationship with indigenous peoples.

"I also was seeing kind of a lack of positive imagery that was historical, that showed the strength and resilience of our communities," he said. 

Seesequasis said while many of the images he posts are in public archives, a lot of the subjects in the photos are not named. A surprising outcome of posting the photos has been that it has become a kind of naming ceremony, with people messaging him to say they recognize a great-grandfather or grandmother, aunties or uncles in the images.

"To me it's a part of reconciliation, part of reclamation of the character of these people and how they are because they should be named,' he said.

Village Seal Controversy

A welcome sign on the village green in Whitesboro, N.Y., displays the village seal. (Observer-Dispatch/AP)

Seesequasis is optimistic that perceptions are changing, saying more and more sports teams are changing their logos and names.

"[It's] disappointing when you see something like Whitesboro, but we also have to look at the positives and where activism and people speaking out, native and non-native, has brought about change."