The Current

Project adds Indigenous names to Canadian history

Project Naming aims to identify Indigenous people forgotten or misrepresented in archival photos, sparking conversations in Indigenous communities about their past.
Four Inuit men standing by the shore, Baker Lake (Qamanittuaq), Nunavut. Heritage researcher Deborah Kigjugalik Webster says the names of these men are hard to find because the photograph is so old but continues her search.

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They were called "Eskimo," "half-breed" or "squaw." The collection of photos of Indigenous people in the collections of Library and Archives Canada extends into the thousands — but often the Indigenous people in the photographs were not named, just labelled with words that sound offensive to modern ears.

Project Naming is hoping to change that. Since 2002, photos have been sent to remote communities or posted online, with the hope that relatives and friends would recognize those unlabelled in the past, and give them the dignity of naming.

"Project Naming gives us the opportunity to take part in reclaiming our history," says Deborah Kigjugalik Webster, a heritage researcher who has found members of her Baker Lake, Nunavut, community in the pictures — including a photo of her aunt as a young woman.

I feel very gratified when I'm able to name someone — it gives me a sense of honouring them or being respectful.- Deborah Kigjugalik Webster

Beth Greenhorn, the manager of Project Naming at Library and Archives Canada, says the project began with a teacher bringing his Inuit students in Ottawa to the archives, to find pictures of their own relatives and take them home to show family.

"The project really began as a way to reclaim these past names and to create dialogue between Inuit youth and elders," Greenhorn tells The Current host Anna Maria Tremonti.

Left to right: Hattie (Niviaqsarjuk), Suzie and Jennie, Fullerton, Nunavut, 1904-05. This photo is among the earliest photographs to be identified. (Royal Canadian Mounted Police / Library and Archives Canada )

It has since expanded to include photos of First Nations and Metis people. But beyond naming the subjects, even just finding out where the photo was taken is in some cases a puzzle.

"There's a lot of areas of Canada where it's bush, as you well know — it's wilderness," says Greenhorn.

"If there's no trees, then you can say, this is probably above the treeline. But if it's in a forest area or even in the plains, it's sometimes just very difficult to be able to pinpoint that."

Photo-based artist and independent curator Jeff Thomas sees these archival photos as a valuable tool of self-determination for Indigenous people such as himself, despite the stereotypes they sometimes portray. And he says they can contribute to reconciliation with the wider population.

"[Photos] are something that everybody understands, in terms of having family photographs or family albums," says Thomas.

"Over the course of my career as a photo-based artist, that's been my priority: working with historical images in creating juxtapositions, conversations, but just to stimulate some sort of energy around these images."

Kangirjuaq (Pork) working on a snow knife, while his wife, Niviaqsarjuk (Hattie) makes caribou footwear and their grandson Ikkat listens to music, Qamanittuaq (Baker Lake), Nunavut, March 1946. (George Hunter / National Film Board of Canada. Photothèque / Library and Archives Canada )

Listen to the full conversation at the top of this webpost. 

This segment was produced by The Current's Marc Apollonio and Karin Marley.