'Dumb Indian' and other slurs used to combat racism in provocative campaign

"Welfare mom." "Drug addict." "Dumb Indian." These harsh slurs emblazoned over portraits of Indigenous people are part of an in-your-face art project meant to challenge racist attitudes in Lethbridge, Alta.

Perception: Lethbridge project uses real Indigenous people to challenge stereotypes

Joel Cross Child is the president of the First Nations artists run centre INNII that commissioned K.C. Adams to produce Perception: Lethbridge. She also modelled for it. (K.C. Adams)

"Dumb Indian." "Drug addict." "Welfare mom." These harsh slurs emblazoned over portraits of Indigenous people are part of an in-your-face art project meant to challenge racist attitudes in Lethbridge, Alta.

The side-by-side portraits of First Nations and Métis people appeared on buses, transit shelters and billboards through the month of September, as well as at CASA, the city's new multidisciplinary arts centre. 

On the left, each person scowls at the camera under words with negative stereotypes. 

On the right, the same people are shown smiling with their actual names and biographical information: "teacher," "baker," "university graduate," "great-grandmother," "Blackfoot instructor," "all-star basketball player," "Canadian quarter-horse champion."

"Growing up in the city, I experienced a lot of racism," said Joel Cross Child, president of INNII, the Indigenous artists-run organization that commissioned the project. She also posed for it.

The 17 side-by-side photos were displayed during the month of September at CASA Lethbridge, an interdisciplinary arts centre, as well as on 8 buses, 8 bus shelters and 2 billboards. (Joel Cross Child)

The Lethbridge images — 17 large-format photographs — are the work of Winnipeg–based artist K.C. Adams, who mounted a similar project in that city last year.

Adams told the Calgary Homestretch she purposely upset her subjects during the shoots.

"The left photo, I asked the model to hear my words and look into the camera lens and then I would say horrible things like 'drunken Indian,' or give them scenarios that would purposely hurt them, scenarios they've experienced throughout their life, and the reaction I got was the photo I took," she said.

"Then on the right side, I would ask them to think about pleasant memories or sometimes I would throw them completely off kilter and get them laughing by saying 'imagine the first time you peed your pants.' The right picture is a representation of who they are and how they see themselves."

The photos appeared at CASA. Eight city buses, eight bus shelters and two billboards also displayed the diptychs.

Sheila Shaw, who is studying for a fine arts degree at the University of Lethbridge, also posed for the portraits.

She says part of her motivation was help teach her 10-year-old daughter and 15-year-old son that racism can be confronted.

"I wanted to show that, even though you do feel personally attacked ... they're just basing their judgement on your skin colour," she said.

Sheila Shaw, who is a mother and an artist, took part in the project in part to help her children understand that racism can be confronted without anger. (K.C. Adams )

Shaw, who is Cree, says her children are darker-skinned than she is and they have experienced racism in Lethbridge.

"There's no hiding from it," she said. "And so, it's important to talk about it. And talking about it is more constructive than getting angry." 

Cross Child says while racism is still a problem in Lethbridge — which is just east of two major Indigenous communities, the Blood and Piikani reserves — attitudes are improving.

She says projects like Perception: Lethbridge can help make sure the next generation of Indigenous people in southern Alberta aren't subjected to racist attitudes.

"I don't want them to be judged by the colour of their skin," she said.

Aside from some hostile remarks on social media, the people of Lethbridge were very receptive to the public art,  according to Cross Child.

"For the most part, we've got nothing but positive feedback," she said.

Adams added she'd like to see her project expand it to other centres.

"I would love to take it to Ottawa, I would love to take it to Thunder Bay where you have youth who are flown in and have to go to high school… far from their homes," she said.

"You see suicidal rates, you see young children getting murdered because they're living away from home and racism is terrible in Thunder Bay. It needs to go all across Canada because that dialogue needs to happen and start that conversation."

The project cost just under $30,000 and was funded with help from Pattison Outdoor, ATB Financial, the City of Lethbridge, CASA, CMARD (Coalition of Municipalities Against Racism and Discrimination), University of Lethbridge and its Faculty of Fine Arts.

The campaign ends on Sept. 30 but the portraits can still be seen on the artist's website.

Some of the other portraits in the series:

(K.C. Adams)
(K.C. Adams )
(K.C. Adams )
(K.C. Adams )
(K.C. Adams )

With files from the Calgary Homestretch