Blanket Toss Under Midnight Sun
Portraits of Everyday Life in Eight Indigenous Communities
- Knopf Canada
- Initial publish date
- Oct 2019
- General, Native Americans, Lifestyles
Paperback / softback
- Publish Date
- Oct 2019
- List Price
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A revelatory portrait of eight Indigenous communities from across North America, shown through never-before-published archival photographs--a gorgeous extension of Paul Seesequasis's popular social media project.
In 2015, writer and journalist Paul Seesequasis found himself grappling with the devastating findings of Canada's Truth and Reconciliation Commission report on the residential school system. He sought understanding and inspiration in the stories of his mother, herself a residential school survivor. Gradually, Paul realized that another, mostly untold history existed alongside the official one: that of how Indigenous peoples and communities had held together during even the most difficult times. He embarked on a social media project to collect archival photos capturing everyday life in First Nations, Metis and Inuit communities from the 1920s through the 1970s. As he scoured archives and libraries, Paul uncovered a trove of candid images and began to post these on social media, where they sparked an extraordinary reaction. Friends and relatives of the individuals in the photographs commented online, and through this dialogue, rich histories came to light for the first time.
Blanket Toss Under Midnight Sun collects some of the most arresting images and stories from Paul's project. While many of the photographs live in public archives, most have never been shown to the people in the communities they represent. As such, Blanket Toss is not only an invaluable historical record, it is a meaningful act of reclamation, showing the ongoing resilience of Indigenous communities, past, present--and future.
About the author
Paul Seesequasis is a writer and journalist. He was the founding editor of the award-winning Aboriginal Voices magazine, recipient of a MacLean-Hunter journalist award, a broadcaster and writer. His short stories and feature writings have been published in Canada and abroad. Tobacco Wars is his first novella.
- Winner, Saskatchewan Book Awards City of Saskatoon and Public Library Saskatoon Book Award
- Winner, Saskatchewan Book Awards University of Regina Book of the Year Award
Excerpt: Blanket Toss Under Midnight Sun: Portraits of Everyday Life in Eight Indigenous Communities (by (author) Paul Seesequasis)
All photographs represent moments in time, but at their best they are also able to inspire something intangible—an emotion, an empathetic response, occasionally a realization. Then one recognizes that there are stories within the image. Often these stories are lost, but something can be gleaned and the photograph can go further.
One might call Blanket Toss Under Midnight Sun a collection of Indigenous photographs. To be more precise, it is a book of photographs of Indigenous peoples, taken for the most part by non-Indigenous photographers, primarily in what is now Canada. These were not just any photographers but those who, through various circumstances, became embedded in a community long enough for their lens to not be as obtrusive as a tourist’s, for the camera to be accepted enough that what is framed is not staged or phony. Alongside these photos appear those of the first generation of Indigenous photographers, among them Peter Pitseolak and George Johnston, who in the mid-twentieth century became pioneers within Indigenous photography.
Somewhat ironically, as it brings to life images taken decades ago, Blanket Toss Under Midnight Sun began in a most transitory and temporary medium: social media. Over three years ago, my mother, a residential school survivor, remarked that she was “tired of hearing just negative things about those times” and that “there had been positive and strong things in Indigenous communities then.” I began to search through archives, seeking not residential school photos or other images of colonization but images reflecting a different reality, that of integrity, strength, resourcefulness, hard work, family and play. And I found them.
Over time I began to recognize the work of specific photographers and became familiar with certain communities at particular moments. I was able to identify which archives had digitized their photographic collections, which museums and libraries held the work of photographers I was curious about, and which photographers, still alive, had their works online.
When I began to post these archival photographs online, I was surprised by the response. I had expected some people to “follow” and “like” the photos, but I had not counted on the comments. Many viewers had never seen the photographs before, but posted to say, “That’s my grandmother!” or “That’s me, forty-two years ago!” This act of naming brought another layer to the photographs: reclamation. It was a rewarding exchange and every day brought something new. I was aware, of course, of Project Naming, a collaborative effort between Library and Archives Canada and Nunavut Sivuniksavut, which offers a special college programme based in Ottawa, serving Inuit youth, to name people from archival photos, so it was another positive step to be able to share and collaborate with Project Naming as the project continued.
History has always interested me, but I am neither a trained historian nor an archivist, so I encountered much learning as I went along. I stumbled, occasionally made assumptions that were in error, and was grateful when I was corrected. I also learned that archival notes are not always accurate in name, location or cultural identity. There were lessons to be repeated like a mantra: Never assume. Worse, Never add your assumptions to the captions. Reprint the archival captions as they are, but expect, in many cases, they will be wrong or inaccurate. Hope that in the seeing, someone out there will recognize a face, a hill, a building. Finally, Expect the unexpected.
When an impression of the past is taken, it is “possessed,” but it cannot be restored, nor can the entirety of its secrets be revealed. The stories that accompany the photographs in this book come from lived memory, conducted through many interviews, or researched over countless hours in the archives. Still, they tell only part of the story. They afford a glimpse into the past and a sense of how things were, but not a fulfillment. As historian Mary Scriver remarked, referring to questions she has posed to Blackfeet elders, the answer is often “could be.” So many of the stories here could be. That does not delegitimize memory or historical accounts, but it points to a certain wisdom that the story is only a small part of the picture and the picture itself only a small part of the story.
When Edward S. Curtis travelled the West and Northwest, taking photos of “Native Americans,” he was doing so with the steadfast belief that “Indians” and their way of life were disappearing. He felt himself a chronicler of a dying race. He was seeking something that Anishinaabe philosopher and writer Gerald Vizenor would call a “terminal creed,” a form of stasis. Curtis’s was an outsider’s gaze fraught with the perils of romanticization. He saw the adaptation to modernity as a loss of traditional life. Curtis carried a suitcase of traditional props so that things could be the way he expected them to be.
Of course, as we know, Curtis was wrong in intimating that Indigenous peoples and their way of life were dying. But he was correct that customs were changing, and ways of hunting, fishing and making things by hand were in flux. However, he failed to grasp that Indigenous ways of being have always been about change and adaptation. Indigenous life was evolving, as it always had and always will.
The photographs in this volume are varied in period, nation and landscape. Beyond just “how things were,” they reveal how things were changing. In curating these eighty-plus photos out of hundreds of possible choices, I’ve focused on roughly a dozen photographers who spent reasonable time in the communities, and who, for the most part, had what one could call “real relations” with their subject matter.
How we view the photograph is dependent on where we are coming from. Are we looking with an outsider’s curious gaze? An anthropological approach to study the “other”? Or a more intimate reconnection to past family, kin and lifestyle? Also within the framing of the photograph is our individual approach to Indigeneity, a word combining Indigenous and identity. “Well, what is indigenous identity? Who defines it: a government, a group of people, an authoritative individual?” writes Tlakatekatl.1 The photographs in this book are Indigenous in that they portray First Nations, Metis and Inuit communities, but what else binds them together? A relationship to land? A shared sense of community or tradition? It is easy to generalize that these are individual people at a given moment in time, that these places and peoples are geographically and culturally diverse, and that the differences are as profound as the similarities. But generalizations obscure reality.
Most if not all of the photographers in this collection were aware that their photos were for future generations to look back upon. But their motivations differed. Walter McClintock, for example, was an “outsider,” a white person with a fascination for Blackfeet culture and lifestyle but only insofar as it fit into his frame of a disappearing way of life. He was not particularly interested in how contemporary Blackfeet were living outside the summer camps he photographed. Yet he had a sensitive eye and took moving photos of women and children, at a time when most male photographers were more interested in “masculine” subjects, such as hunting or war. Peter Pitseolak, by contrast, was an Inuit “insider” and was motivated to capture the day-to-day life of Inuit for future generations—how things were, how people hunted, fished and built shelters. Living in the Arctic, and with the eventual help of his partner, Aggeok Pitseolak, he was able to overcome the challenges of producing pictures far from any town or darkroom. Pitseolak was not concerned with the outside gaze; McClintock took his photos specifically for the outside gaze.
Rosemary Eaton came to Canada as an English immigrant. Perhaps this outsider identity, in small part, explains her fascination with both First Nations and Inuit peoples and her ability to achieve a disarming intimacy in many of her photos. As a woman and photojournalist, she was also, in her own way, removing barriers in a male-dominated profession.
Long before the advent of smartphones and social media, we used images to define ourselves and represent how we wish others to see us. The most recent photos in this book date from the 1970s; when most of these photos were taken, the camera was a more time-consuming novelty, not a small computer you carried in your pocket or purse. Only in George Legrady’s photographs of Cree communities in the James Bay area do you encounter people walking around with Polaroid cameras. The Polaroid provided a solution to the problem of developing film by sending it south and waiting for weeks, if not months, to get your pictures back. Some Indigenous photographers, including George Johnston in the Yukon and Pitseolak in the Arctic, built their own makeshift darkrooms.
The photographs in this book are from digitized collections of archives, libraries and museums, as well as the private collections of photographers. In posting these and hundreds of other photos over a three-year period, I gradually built a rapport with “followers,” adding an essential aspect to the project. People from the communities, many of whom had not seen the photographs, were able to identify family members, relatives, friends, occasionally themselves. A further dialogue began to unearth stories, providing a narrative that went beyond the photo, giving context and history and often leading to other, related photos. It would have been near impossible to research and gather these stories without the Internet. Even if one had an unlimited budget to travel to each of these regions, you would not know where to begin, whom to talk to, who was still alive and who was able to give context; social media opened up that channel.
“Honouring the resilience, resourcefulness and determination of generations. No, we are not moving anywhere.” These two lines appeared on the tweet pinned to the top of my page. Three years and hundreds of photos later, it still feels that in many ways I am just scratching the surface. There are photographs out there waiting to be discovered, shared and reconnected to lived memory. This book contains only a sampling, focused on specific archival fonds and geographical regions, mostly in Canada. A representational snapshot of Indigenous life from the early 1900s to the 1970s, from coast to coast to coast, would be beyond the scope of a single book. The focus narrows even further, following the work of specific photographers and photojournalists, and certain individuals who are remembered and who left an impact. Those photos going further back are dependent on recorded history.
The introductions to each of the eight chapters will, I hope, provide useful background to the reader. The narratives and captions provide context, but the photos speak for themselves.
“A revelatory work of astonishing grace, Blanket Toss Under Midnight Sun encapsulates an invisible generation brought to glorious life. So many times, the subject could have been my auntie, cousin or grandmother. When people ask why I live on the rez, I’ll point them to this book, this stunning reclamation of narrative, which so movingly shows the love of place, community and self.” —Eden Robinson
“Paul Seesequasis's Blanket Toss Under Midnight Sun is a wonderful collection of found photographs and recovered histories that link us to a past as old as the land and as precious as breath.” —Thomas King, author of The Inconvenient Indian