Anishinabe-Aki! Or, the Importance of the Kneeling “Indian Scout” Statue’s Light Show

I can already tell that this post is going to be longer than I intended it to be. Bear with me, because it is important.

These past two days, I have been attending and volunteering at the Champlain on the Anishinabe Aki: Histories and Memories of an Encounter colloquium at Carleton University. This conference blew me away, particularly because of the strong First Nation – Anishinaabeg – presence. We began each day with smudging ceremonies, prayer, and singing from elders and youths, and frequently the Anishinaabeg got in the final word in the panels and audience questions as well. Conference organizers and participants acknowledged and thanked the Anishinaabeg for welcoming them onto unsurrendered Anishinaabeg land. They were not sidelined as is so often seen in academic conferences. The panels also had a good balance of English and French speakers, and the interpretive services available for all participants that needed them – panelists and audience members – was phenomenal, promoting a wonderful amount of dialogue between many groups from what is now Canada as well as France.

The theme of the conference was to be along the Champlain commemorations and historical encounters with the Anishinaabeg people, but the panels discussions did not linger as much as expected on the man that was Champlain and the celebratory commemorations that have been occurring to mark the 400th anniversary of his short (two week?) visit to the Ottawa River valley region. When they did, the speakers generally brought critical reflection to their panels. The standard narratives of positive, superficial encounters between Champlain, Tesouat (the “Indians” have names!) that are so often presented in official commemorations were questioned, and the negative effects of such stories was discussed; by celebrating Champlain’s historical journey and the supposed arrival of 400 years of francophonie in the Ottawa region that resulted, the long histories of First Nation persecution in the region are marginalized and glossed over.

One image dominated the conference and was discussed on multiple occasions: that of the famous Samuel de Champlain statue on Nepean Point, behind the National Art Gallery in Ottawa. The statue has been criticized for being an inaccurate representation of the physical likeness of Champlain, and also because he is apparently holding his astrolabe upside down (perhaps to reinforce the image of a cross being held aloft). Many have also insisted that the artifact known as “Champlain’s astrolabe” – which served as a model for the one that the statue holds – may not have been Champlain’s astrolabe after all.

The Samuel de Champlain statue on Nepean Point, Ottawa, Ontario. Note astrolabe. Photograph by Lauren Markewicz, summer 2013.

Now, this “heroic” figure isn’t out of step with the style of other similar nationalistic statues coming out of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The work is problematic in many ways, but the most infamous is that it wasn’t always alone on that spot. On the base on the left hand side is a small platform where a statue of an anonymous “Kneeling Indian Tracker”  statue (this year renamed “Kitchi Zibi Omàmìwininì“) stood from 1918 until relatively recently. You can see a photograph here on Jeff Thomas’ website. Whole essays – maybe whole master’s or doctor’s theses – have or can be written about this subject. Long story short, the statue was deemed offensive – kneeling at the feet of Champlain in a subservient position and in stereotypical dress – and was removed.

…And moved to Major’s Hill Park. Which, if you know Ottawa, is actually within sight of Nepean Point, where the Champlain statue still stands, less than 350 metres away. (Here are walking directions, courtesy of Google Maps.) I ran into Jeff Thomas, an urban Mohawk and famed photographer, at Nepean Point this summer where he was working on a photographic project which you can read more about here. I asked him what he thought of the statue being moved. He doesn’t like that the work is now so hidden, and that the figure now looks like he is kneeling before parliament. Incidentally, the figure’s turned head is also gazing back -longingly? – at Champlain or his original post. I can also tell you personally that the statue is hidden in some tall grass behind a washroom building. It’s definitely out of the way. Out of sight, out of mind. As reiterated at several points during the conference, including by Thomas himself, who was a panelist: you can’t just erase history.

Now, as a part of the 400th anniversary celebrations of Champlain’s trip to the Outaouais region, the National Capital Commission is to do three light shows at the Champlain statue, called “Plain-Chant“, starting last night. There is a huge ring of lights surrounding the monument. 

But we didn’t go to Nepean Point. Instead, a bunch of us went to the counter light show at Major’s Hill Park, where the Indian Scout would have remained alone, in the dark, unacknowledged. Some local Anishinabeg people had organized an impromptu counter light show in protest. They festooned the scout with glow sticks (and glow stick bracelets!), broke out the flash lights and bicycle headlights, put on some electric powwow music by A Tribe Called Red, and danced.

And it was epic. It was also much more exciting than the “official” light show, which seemed to make Champlain look like the second coming of Christ, all to loud almost futuristic music (from what we could hear from down below). The lights on Nepean Point also looked garish and frankly like nothing more than a flying saucer. Reliable sources who attended the official presentation reported that there was little to no historical content in that propaganda show – and no acknowledgement of the contribution of the Anishinabeg to Champlain’s few achievements in the region and of course no mention of the fact that that monument used to have a second statue.

I caught a quick view of the Champlain monument as we walked away.

Anishinabe Aki means “Anishinabe Land”. The land upon which Ottawa, Canada’s capital, now sits, was not surrendered to the Canadian government. Land claims are ongoing.

Further Resources

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Let’s Start Talking About Postcards and Research Topics

Hello, all! This will be the first of many posts on the subject of my research project for my Public History Master’s program. I’m going to make every effort to demonstrate to you just how interesting everything I’m studying is.

Roughly, I am going to be studying tourism to Western Canada (particularly the Rockies) post-Confederation to the 1920s or 1930s. Yes, that was very vague. You see, I picked up this topic just at the end of August, though I was doing related but more specialized research for Fort Edmonton Park as a part of my costumed interpretation on 1920s street. Particularly, I was looking at automotive tourism in the 1910s and 1920s from Edmonton to Jasper. Early “auto-camping” is sure to be a subject that I will pick up on this blog – and in potential research – later on.

Anyway, before I began attending Carleton University this year, I studied history at the University of Alberta. There, I did an undergraduate thesis on the subject of the history of American Civil War medicine. I can literally talk your ear off for over an hour about early uses and perceptions of anaesthesia, miasma theory, germ theory, and so on. Just try me. More on that in a later post.

However, while I find the history of medicine one of the most fascinating things ever, I wanted to do a more Canadian topic for my Master’s, especially as I would be working with some awesome Canadianists at the heart of our nation’s capital.

Over the course of my undergraduate degree, I became fascinated by photography. I’ve always focused my research upon the “Long Nineteenth Century” (ranging from the French Revolution to the first First World War, because centuries are arbitrary dates and I don’t like putting things in abstract or arbitrary boxes), and now the 1920s have grown on me. (Being paid to drive in motorcars from the late 1920s for a chunk of the summer will do that to you – photographs to come.)


(Automotive tourists in Banff, shown in a personalized postcard from 1922, courtesy of Peel’s Prairie Provinces.)

Thus, while Civil War amputations may have little to do with early tourism in the Rockies over a generation later, I think that one of the elements that draws these two topics together is the visual culture of both. I will likely later post images from the Civil War – early medical imaging whose poses are based off of portrait photography! – but for the moment, I will be focussing on postcards.

For the purposes of my OGS and SSHRC proposals, which require very specific research goals, I will be examining representations of First Nations people on these postcards, especially in the light of the comments made by the senders. The neat thing about postcards is that sometimes we have a literal written interpretation of the viewer/purchaser/sender written right on it, which can tell us plenty of things about how tourists saw the region and the people therein.

The following postcard really epitomizes this kind of practice, though of course I have other examples. The following doesn’t come from Peel’s Prairie Provinces like the one above. (Though they have 14,000+ postcards recently digitized in this free online database!) In fact, it belongs to the family of one of my classmates who eagerly told me about it when we were discussing our potential research topics. She recently scanned these images for me, and I am forever in her debt.

On the front of the postcard we can see some “Blood Indians on Horse Back”. Some wear plains-style war bonnets, which (later?) become associated with “Indian” stereotypes even in Eastern tribes where there was no such tradition. You can also see some native riders in more “European” style clothing on the right, with their hats clearly visible. This image was copyrighted in 1910, so we know that this photo can’t have been taken after that date.


So far, very little distinguishes this postcard to me from any other dozen images of similar subjects from this time period. First Nations people in “traditional regalia”, preparing for “war parties”, etc., were very popular images in photography in the final decades of the 19th century onward. What I find most fascinating is the message on the reverse, sent to my friend’s great-grandmother in 1912:Image“These are a few of the people we have to associate with out here. J.W.S.”

I interpreted this message humorously, and I find it and many other such postcards very fascinating. Did the purchaser of this card ever actually meet any “Blood Indians”, or was the extent of their contact the viewing and sending of this postcard? Are they playing into the expectations of their friends and family back home, because of course one can still regularly expect to see such people riding across the Western plains?

I will be examining these types of questions, among many others. In the meantime, you’ll probably find me waist-deep in primary and secondary literature. It’s a good thing I’ve recently stocked up my freezer, because aside from trips to the University for class and the occasional social event, and trips to the national archive, how frequently will I pop my head up above my pile of books?