Exhibitionists·BEHIND THE PHOTO

Adrian Stimson reclaims his past by parodying photos from his family's residential school

Upon first glance, the Siksika artist's Sketches of Indian Life might seem like a lighthearted photo. But there's much more to it when you look closer.

'It's unfathomable, the diabolical nature of these places'

Adrian Stimson's performance art persona is known as Buffalo Boy. (Adrian Stimson)

Upon first glance, Adrian Stimson's Sketches of Indian Life might seem like a lighthearted photo. But there's much more to it when you look closer.

The photo is one part of a series of photos by the multidisciplinary artist reflecting on historical images of residential schools from the Glenbow Museum archives. The series was taken in 2005, back in the early days of Stimson's art career while he was studying at the University of Saskatchewan.

Watch the video:

Adrian Stimson: Sketches of Indian Life

5 years ago
Duration 1:19
Sketches of Indian Life is a photograph reflecting a historical image of the Old Sun Residential School from the Glenbow Museum archives.

Sketches of Indian Life depicts Stimson's performance art persona Buffalo Boy underneath a disco cowboy hat, wearing pearls and a buffalo corset next to an incorrect math equation written on a chalkboard.

The book he's holding is where the title of the photo comes from, Sketches of Indian Life. It's his great grandmother's book, it contains "stereotypical descriptions of Indian Life...The Good Indian, The Bad Indian."

But the most striking part of the image is the look on Buffalo Boy's face.

"Children at North Camp School, Blackfoot Reserve, Gleichen Area, Alberta, 1892, Collection of Glenbow NA 1934-1" (Courtesy of Glenbow Archives)

Every part of Stimson's composition is calculated to reflect a historical image of Old Sun Indian Residential School from 1892 on Siksika Nation (east of Calgary), where most of his family is from. Many of his family members attended this residential school. "I may be related to a number of people in this photograph," he says.

With Sketches of Indian Life, he wanted to "recreate that surprise of not only being photographed but also that sense of, 'Where the heck am I?' You've been taken out of your home, you're put in these institutions and it's so foreign to what you're used to in your life."

For Indigenous people, we use humour a lot — not only as a survival mechanism, but it's built within our culture.- Adrian Stimson

Stimson was born while his parents were attending residential school in Ontario. He spent a large part of his childhood in various residential schools. "It's unfathomable, the diabolical nature of these places," says Stimson. "Through my art practice, I've been able to exorcise those demons."

Buffalo Boy's humour and lightheartedness mixes parody against a deeper reflection of the dark history of the Old Sun Indian Residential School. The math equation on the blackboard behind him represents the questions presented by reconciliation that even in modern day still don't have the correct answers.

But overall, Buffalo Boy reminds us that laughter is a vital part of the healing process.

Buffalo Boy is a key fixture in Adrian Stimson's performance art and a regular at the annual Burning Man festival in Nevada. The character is constantly shifting identities — from Pow Wow dancer to shaman to gay cowboy. (Adrian Stimson )

"It's a little bit of a tickle and then a slap," says Stimson. "For Indigenous people, we use humour a lot — not only as a survival mechanism, but it's built within our culture."

As fate would have it, Stimson works with the great grandson of the priest in the Old Sun Indian Residential School photo. Together, they're putting together a reconciliation project.

Ultimately, Stimson hopes that these photos encourage viewers to take a closer look at Canada's history and gain understanding around the "aggressive assimilation" of residential schools.

You can catch Adrian Stimson's work at The Governor General's Awards in Visual and Media Arts exhibition at the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa.


Chanel Klein specializes in digital video production. She currently works with CBC's Creator Network in Alberta. She's produced video content for q, CBC Comedy, CBC Television's unscripted entertainment shows in Toronto, and the Beijing and Tokyo Olympics with CBC Sports. Before working at CBC, Chanel hosted and produced a national award-winning community radio program in Vancouver.