Living and Elk Island National Park, I see a lot of bison on a daily basis. I am very familiar with how they look, move, sound, and smell. That makes looking at historical photographs of bison all the more fascinating. While Elk Island’s herd is fairly genetically diverse, thanks to the seed stock from which they originated, historical photos and descriptions indicate that there was much greater variety in appearance than I am used to seeing. Some historians say that photographs of gigantic piles of buffalo skulls from the 1880s and 1890s show more diversity in horn shape and size than anything we see in museum collections – and presumably living herds – today.
Case in point: this image of bison at the now-defunct Buffalo National Park (1909-1939) near Wainwright, Alberta. Yes, wood bison in particular have shaggier heads (often reminding observers of teenage “emo” hairstyles) but plains bison caps don’t normally have hair that looks so straight or… wig-like.
For more information on Buffalo National Park, see: Brower, Jennifer. Lost Tracks: Buffalo National Park, 1909-1939. Edmonton: Athabasca University Press, 2008.
For more information on the diversity of bison anatomy in archaeology, see: Michael Clayton Wilson, “Bison in Alberta: Paleontology, Evolution, and Relations with Humans,” in Buffalo: Alberta Nature and Culture Series, edited by John Foster, Dick Harrison, and I.S. MacLaren (Edmonton, Alberta: University of Alberta Press, 1994): 1-17.
The internet is a fascinating place. Many imagine historians to look rather like that historian who gets slain after the fourth wall breaks in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, more at home in the dusty archive wearing a tweed shirt than cruising around online. But honestly, there are amazing resources in the depths of the internet that are making it easier and easier for historians to save on travel costs – and wear and tear on delicate documents. Here are a few that I feel you should know. All on this list can be accessed for free, which makes them ideal for those who don’t yet (or no longer) have access to subscription-based online databases through university tuition fees. This list is by no means exhaustive, but may contain a few of the slightly less well-known free archives and collections available online.
Peel’s Prairie Provinces via the University of Alberta library and archive. A huge collection of digitized Western Canadiana. If it was published in or about Manitoba, Saskatchewan, or Alberta prior to, say, the 1950s, they probably have a copy in their full text keyword searchable database. I’ve talked about a few of their documents before – see this post on a Western Canadian Dictionary and Phrase-Book from 1912 – but the element of their collection that I have made the most use of is their postcards. Some, like the postcards of bison/cow hybrids, have been digitized: over 15,000 historical postcard entries. However, as of last year they doubled their collection, though most have not yet been described or made available online. Nevertheless, they are a hugely rich resource that is only just started to be tapped by researchers (including me for my MA research project). Peel’s Prairie Provinces also has a large collection of digitized photographs apart from their postcards and a huge set of Western Canadian newspapers – even those that only ran for a few years, or were from small towns or in unusual languages. Once again, they are entirely keyword searchable!
A quick post to prove to you that I am not dead, merely buried under a large pile of books and papers, in the final stretch before completing my final major research project for my Master’s degree in Public History at Carleton. I have been staring at hundreds of postcards of First Nations people over the past year. I would be hard pressed to point to the ones I find the post intriguing (though the privately produced “Calf Robes Resisting Capture” series I’ve written about before may come close). The main thrust of my MA project is in the analysis of postcards not as neutral photographic representations of the past (which has of course been thoroughly debunked by many a historian of photography) but in the very “biases”/incorrect assumptions about Aboriginal people written on postcards in the captions and the handwritten messages. I examine the way that the textual elements of postcards reveal how such images were interpreted in the first three decades of the twentieth century and therefore how the photographic subjects were understood by white settler communities and tourists. Picture postcards served as interesting platforms for the spread of a certain rhetoric about “Indians” in circulation in the Prairie West. I’m interested in the ways that postcard messages, even “lighthearted” ones with (often racist) jokes, reflected and propagated usually damaging depictions of Aboriginal people.
Heavy thoughts for such small objects.
At the moment, I thought I would leave you with a postcard that I did not discuss in my thesis, mainly because it was not sent through the mail and has no handwritten message on the reverse. I chose to post this example here because of how visually striking the composition of the image is – and because it reminds us that whatever American Wild West films say about “cowboy versus Indians,” First Nations people have also historically been cowboys.
When discussing the history of the North American West, the disappearance of the vast “buffalo” (bison) herds must inevitably make an appearance. Over hunting (largely by Europeans and arguably the Métis in Canada during the late fur trade period), competition with domestic cattle in the United States, fencing in previously open prairies, droughts, and the barriers created by railway tracks all contributed to the decline of herds that once contained millions of animals. Photographs of small mountains of bison skulls are a dramatic and tragic depiction of European excess and appear frequently in museums and basic histories of the West.
However, as early as the first decades of the twentieth century, some individuals were seriously trying to tackle new questions of animal conservation. At the now-defunct Buffalo National Park (1909-1939), near Wainwright, Alberta, a new “breed” of animal was created: the “cattalo” (cattle + buffalo), created by breeding together domesticated cattle with bison. These animals were bred back with full-blooded bison to remove their cattle-like physical characteristics, which are still evident in the photographs below of animals that are 5/8 bison. These photographs largely date from the 1910s and 1920s and most were taken in Wainwright.
Edit: I have since also been informed that at Buffalo National Park also conducted hybridization experiments with yaks (“yakkalo“?), under the belief that yaks were a transition species between buffalo and domesticated cattle – that given the right conditions, bison would become yak-like and then cow-like.
And speaking of “domesticated” bison, I would be remiss in not including this fascinating postcard, for which I have unfortunately little context: “The only chariot buffalo team in the world, owned by Bob Yokum and Edd Carr.” Only in Calgary, eh?
Side note about terminology: though they are colloquially known as “buffalo” and referred to almost exclusively by that name in the nineteenth-century historical record, “bison” is the preferred term in my generation. “Buffalo” was a misnomer imposed on the animal by European explorers who believed they resembled buffalo from Africa. “Bison” is considered the correct term by many, though some, particularly some Métis groups, still argue that the term “bison” is prescriptivist and “buffalo” still enjoys popular usage and cultural recognition. (“Li buffalo” is still how one says “bison” in Michif, the most widely-spoken Métis language.)
Postcards were not always mass produced. In the early twentieth century, one could print Kodaked images onto postcard stock and create one’s own unique postcard to mail off to friends and relations. The University of Alberta Archive’s Peel’s Prairie Provinces has just recently doubled its collection of early Western Canadian postcards to nearly 30,000 examples, some entirely unique. I had the opportunity last summer to examine some of the ones that weren’t yet digitized. Among the picture postcards of Banff’s main street, parades at the Calgary Stampede, European pioneers in Saskatoon, and everything in between, I ran across a series of privately produced postcard images that I find incredibly intriguing. They are a set of photographic postcards that have been cut from a photo album – the backs are blank, glued to pieces of black paper from the album sheets. The same people appear in multiple images, but aside from a few telling details and a few names which may or may not be jokes or pop culture references I cannot understand over a century later, these images are now relatively anonymous. This photoset may not even be complete. I confess I was scanning them alongside about 300 other images over the course of a single day and I only noticed that they were from the same grouping later on when I began looking at them more deeply for my major research essay. I also only examined a few boxes of cards which had been separated out by the archivist for having explicitly Aboriginal subjects, so it is possible that there are other postcards from these photographers in the Peel’s Prairie Provinces Collection, yet to be digitized. I was initially hoping to incorporate them into my major research project, but they have far more in common with anonymous photo album pages than they do postcards, as fascinating as they are. Ah, well, a project for another time!
I have placed these images in an order that made sense to me, placing them either in what amounts to a sequence, or beside images that share the same photographic subjects for ease of comparison. Do not ascribe meaning to the order as it was imposed by me. I now invite you to consider these photographs for yourself. I have included a few preliminary observations, but I welcome any further commentary from my readers. Maybe we’ll find the proverbial smoking gun that identifies these people. Please click the images to enlarge them and see my annotations. (Note: The strings of numbers beginning in “PC” (“post card”) are their Peel’s Prairie Provinces call numbers, so you may cite them or look them up when they finally become digitized.)
PC030189 – “Accepting Friendship” The man on the right appears in multiple photographs, as does the man on the left, identified as “Calf Robes” in another image. Notice the ax on the ground between them – perhaps a reference to the expression “burying the hatchet”?
PC030240 – “The blow almost killed Father” A family man, eh? This implies that the author of the messages on these images – possibly the photographer – is that man’s daughter or son, or that the image was sent to the children of the “Father” and so the author of the note is writing from the children’s perspective, their potential audience. This image may also be playing to “Indian” stereotypes – fighting with tomahawks. It’s interesting that the “Sarcee”(?) man on the left (Calf Robes?) is a full participant in these photographic vignettes. He also appears to be wearing dancing/ceremonial regalia – the war bonnet, the beaded jacket and moccasins and the bells(?) on his belt are not everyday wear.
PC030238 – “A original Hair Cut” A faux depiction of scalping. The posing of this scene may be influenced by popular images of missionary martyrs… or “Father” is just praying prior to his “death”.
PC030247 – “Calf Robes resisting capture” Because this is from the 1920s at the latest, I’m going to assume that that’s a real gun. Calf Robes does seem to be holding his own, though. Is “Calf Robes” his real name? Or is he playing a character just as much as the other men in the scene are? These first four photographs all seem to have been taken on the same day with the same backdrop (tent, light snow on the ground).
PC030250 – “Good bye sweet day” The tables have turned. That doesn’t seem to be “Calf Robes” holding the gun, though. He appears in multiple following images. The man cheering in the background with the ribbed bone bead work on his shirt is also a recurring figure.
PC030242 – “Gone but not forgotten” Apparently the man didn’t escape. The man holding the rifle in this shot is not the same man holding the gun in the previous “Good bye sweet day” image, but the cheering man.
PC030237. This man appears in multiple images, as does his beaded robe/blanket.
PC030195 – “Tis only the “Brave” that deserve the fair.” I suspect that this caption is a quotation from some poem or song (I think “None but the brave deserve the fair” is an expression), and that they are creating a pun. The writer put “Brave” in quotation marks, drawing attention to the play on words: brave as in courageous but also “brave” as in “native warrior.”
PC030191 – “Spencer & Kipp” Once again, are “Spencer and Kipp their real names? Or is this another reference I don’t understand? These two figures appear in several other images, as does that distinctively beaded robe.
PC030246 These are the two men from previous images – whom I have called “Father” and “the Scot”, wearing the feather headdresses and the robes of the Aboriginal participants. They may also be striking stoic portrait poses from paintings of “Indians.”
PC030251 – “Black + White or A scot in Indian garb.” This image may have been taken immediately after the previous one, and definitely on the same occasion. (Whose leg is that on the left? Possibly “Father’s”.) It is possible that these two images were taken with two separate cameras, considering the quality of some of the images (some more grey in tone, like this one, and others lighter and more sepia) and the fact that several other photographs show “Father” holding a brownie camera, meaning that there were two cameras present.
PC030276 These two ladies wear what look to me like very Edwardian outfits, particularly the very large hats which were only popular for about a decade until 1914 or so. As a side note, I would like to point out the fact that all three people in this portrait are wearing feathers on their heads. The man in the middle is definitely wearing ceremonial/dancing regalia: bells are not worn on a daily basis.
PC030194 – “Mrs. Mayfield’s Baby” Note the two ladies from the previous image having their photograph taken in the background, likely taken on the same occasion because they are wearing the same outfits. This photograph also confirms that there were two cameras at play. This photo series may only be the results of one of those Kodak Brownies, though. Note that cameras were not held to the eye – you looked through the viewfinder from up above and hold the camera at waist height.
PC030241. This image really set the tone for me as I looked at the rest of the photographs in the series. These two men are having fun, being ridiculous and out of place.
PC030244. This wagon also appears in the previous photograph. That man with the ribbed bone shirt also appears in earlier photographs (“Good bye sweet day” and “Gone but not forgotten.”) I also have to ask myself what they are doing there – and where “there” is. Are they tourists just out on the town, wanting to be photographed with some “real Indians”? The posture of the man with the pipe (“Father”) makes me uneasy, especially with the other man standing behind the child and turning his attention to the baby, holding his or her hand for support.
PC030190 – “Mr & Mrs Muski” I am unsure if “Muski” is an Edwardian pop culture reference, or the woman’s name. If the latter, the “joke” is likely to be found in identifying the man as her husband. Note that the man on the right holds a Kodak Brownie camera under his left arm.
PC030199 – “Susie” The fact that this woman is named leads me to believe that these “tourists” knew some of the people in these photographs, but I could be mistaken. This photograph also made me quite excited because she is standing next to a window with a newspaper prominently displayed. I hoped to use it to date the image. It says: – “LANDSLIDE , Saturday February 25th, 9am.” I haven’t been able to find which newspaper this is; unfortunately, the name of the paper is not in frame. I was hoping that the landslide it refers to was the infamous Frank Slide, but that happened in April, not February. However, there were only four years between 1895 and 1920 in which February 25th fell on a Saturday, so this particular photograph could have been taken in 1899,1905, 1911, or 1922, though judging by what the white women were wearing in other photos in this series I’d say that the middle two dates were most likely. As a side note, I also find the shadow of the photographer in this image slightly eerie. Who/what is Susie looking at?
PC030200 – “Susie’s blind husband” Again, these photographs were taken on at least two separate occasions: Susie is pictured again here, but in a completely different outfit, though possibly wearing the same beaded belt. I am intrigued by the fact that Susie appears to be standing arm in arm with the white man in the centre. I believe that the caption is correct and the man on the left is blind, judging by the way his gaze does not meet the camera. If he is blind, it is entirely possible that he would have been a distinctive enough individual to record. How many blind men lived on the prairies circa 1910? Susie also appears to be wearing dress moccasins (heavily beaded, unlike in the prior image of her taken in town) and what may be (judging by the texture) a beaded shirt. She holds her plaid blanket in one hand instead of using it as a shawl as she did in the prior image. Perhaps this photograph was taken when she was dressed for a special occasion.
PC030248 – “The toiler?” That question mark is very telling and may be playing into stereotypes of “Indians” as inherently lazy, despite all of the evidence to the contrary. Some of these photographs were evidently taken in a small town, perhaps the one visible in the background of several other shots (with the grain elevator). Maybe this photograph was even taken later in the day from the first “Susie” photograph, judging by the location and the length of the shadows.
PC030193 – “Age 93 Bull Head’s Squaw Chief of the Sarcees” Many postcards depict exceptional individuals, particularly the elderly. I do find it disturbing that we cannot see her face, even though the lighting in the image would otherwise indicate that we could.
So, in summary: these photographs were taken on at least two occasions, as evidenced by the same figures appearing at least twice in different outfits and the presence/lack of snow on the ground. These photographs were likely taken South of Calgary, as one of the figures is identified as “Sarcee” (Tsuu T’ina); that is, of course, if the writer identified the band correctly. The photographs likely date from circa 1899-1922, but are more likely from 1905 or 1912, when gigantic Merry Widow hats were popular. There were two photographers present, but these photographs may have only come from one of their cameras. I am unsure of the relationship between the people in the photographs. Why do “Calf Robes” and the others play along in staging scenes of violence? Is “Susie” truly on a first name basis with the photographer and the man she stands arm-in-arm with? Are these white folks tourists, locals visiting Tsuu T’ina friends, or the family of an Indian agent with political power over these people? Furthermore, if these photographs were all taken by the same person, there may be a (sixth?) person in the party who is never pictured because they are always behind the camera and not in front of it.
When I worked in the 1846-era at Fort Edmonton Park, there were quite a few questions I would get asked more or less dozens of times a day. One, if the visitors didn’t get the introductory tour from the train platform, was a variation on the theme of: “Where did the soldiers sleep?” This question would prompt us costumed interpreters to patiently explain that this wasn’t a military fort, but a Hudson’s Bay Company trading post, and generally having soldiers on site threatening to shoot your customers (the local Cree and other First Nations from further afield) was bad for business. However, just as often we got this question: “Is this the original fort?”
It’s a fair question. The wood of the fort looks quite old. The park also has numerous other original historical buildings on site which have been moved there over the past decades. Unfortunately, the answer is no, it a reconstruction of Fort Edmonton as it stood in 1846.
“Where is/was the original fort?” is often the follow up question.
The answer? It’s complicated.
Fort Edmonton was nominally founded in 1795, but no fort by that name stood for more than a decade or so in the same location until the fifth and final fort was constructed in 1840. They were built either too far away for local customers to conveniently visit (e.g., the location that was way down near modern Fort Saskatchewan) or in a location prone to flooding (a really relevant topic this year) like the two times it was placed near the Rossdale Flats. They were also never meant to be permanent structures and were not designed to stand the test of time.
You can still see faint evidence of the fourth fort now: right next to the old fort cemetery, on the North side of the Walterdale Bridge, where they have graves, a figure of eight or stylized tipi statue, and interpretive signs. I have been told that the fort stood on the big flat square that is now the intersection of 95 Ave and 105 street NW. I would highly recommend visiting the site – uh, the graveyard, not the intersection, that’s suicide, please don’t stop in the middle of the road to admire the asphalt – because according to our records and archaeological digs, numerous individuals from the early history of the Fort are buried there… including a woman I portrayed for one season, Nancy Harriott, daughter of Chief Factor John Rowand. That intersection has a lot of history underneath it.
Anyway, that still hasn’t answered your original question: where is the original fort, the one represented at Fort Edmonton? The fifth and final one? Well, they had trouble with flooding in earlier iterations, so they moved the location of the fort up the hill… to a very familiar hill, in fact, if you live in Edmonton today. Let’s go to Google Maps:
This is a map showing the grounds of the Legislature building in Edmonton, which houses the provincial government of Alberta. In behind the Legislature is a set of stairs: go down them. At the bottom, you’ll find a lovely flat area where they do lawn bowling today: a square of cleared land. (Zoom in on this map; the salmon-pink “A” pin points the way.) That green square is where the original fort stood.
If you visit the site, you will see little obelisks set up where some of the old bastions used to be. Hence, too, “Fortway drive”, the name of the road that runs parallel to the river below that site. There’s also the photographic record, because Edmontonians and tourists to the city loved seeing the contrast between old (the fort) and new (the construction of the high level bridge and the Legislature) on postcards of the era. The Legislature shared the grounds with the fort for nearly a decade in the early twentieth century.
Old Hudson Bay Post and Parliament Bldg., Edmonton, Alta. Edmonton: Pub. for Leonards Cigar Store, Pantages Theatre Bldg., Edmonton, Alta, [after 1913]. Courtesy of Peel’s Prairie Provinces.
Why was it torn down, if it is such an important part of Edmonton’s history? Well, by the first decade of the twentieth century, it wasn’t in the best of shape. The fur trade had been in decline in the area since the 1860s and 1870s – curse Prince Albert and his trend-setting silk top hats! – and the fort’s buildings had been mostly abandoned for several decades after being used as a warehouse for the HBC. Photographs of the era show the buildings to be listing rather severely to one side, necessitating crossbeams to be added to prop them up. The company no longer owned the land, and in all honesty, the buildings were probably spoiling the view of the grounds from the legislature building. It was rotting and full of vermin. So they took it down.
(As an interpreter who shall remain nameless told me in my first year at the fort: “then they put the rot and the vermin in the new Legislature building instead! Haha?” I loved that joke, but I was always afraid to tell it too often lest an actual politician, such as an MLA, was in the audience.)
There are several unverified theories as to what happened to the actual wood of the Fort Edmonton buildings. People did object to the demolition of the structure, and so the city(?) promised to save the wood and reconstruct the fort at a later date. Apparently the wood was stored down by the river for a long while before going missing. Perhaps it rotted away. Others say that the Boy Scouts burned it in 1953 to celebrate the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II, as the city did apparently donate a bunch of old, dry wood for their bonfires. One man claims that his barn is made up in part of the wood from the fort, and the wood is certainly old enough, but there’s no obvious “made in Fort Edmonton” stamp on it, so who can tell at such a late date? A mystery for the ages.
And anyway, you don’t really want the park’s fort built of the same wood as before. I mean, if it was in rough shape in 1915, how much worse would it have been in the late 1960s when the fort was reconstructed, let alone today in 2013? No visitor would be allowed inside the fort because of safety concerns.
But fear not! You can still see some original pieces of Fort Edmonton at the park. Go into Rowand House, behind the stairs on the main floor. Ask an interpreter about the big metal box you see there. (It may be the subject of a future blog post.) I have also heard rumours that the top of the fort’s flag pole may also be original to the old fort, but this historical tidbit has yet to be verified.
Oh, and one more thing: the reconstruction of the fort at the park, while made to the exact measurements of the Palliser plan from 1846, is different in a handful of ways, but most significantly is this: it is a mirror image of the original fort. Why? The old one was on the North side of the North Saskatchewan River. The park stands on the South side. The gates had to face in the correct direction: the river.
Brock Silversides. Fort de Prairies. Edmonton, AB: Heritage House Publishing Co. Ltd, 2005. Aside from a detailed history of the forts in the Edmonton area, drawing liberally from primary sources, it also reprints what may be all known depictions of Fort Edmonton since the early 1800s. If you would like to consult one of the photographs or maps that I mention, it is in all likelihood reproduced in this book.
A photograph (which also appears in Silversides’ book) of the old fort being demolished in 1915.
Consider this photograph, taken when I was on holiday in Jasper National Park three years ago with my family.
I’m quite proud of it. It’s a beautiful view, if I do say so myself. The way the trees and the mountains frame the island, the richness of the colours of the water and the plant life, the starkness of the lighting because of the storm clouds, the stillness of the water… Only I could have taken this photograph, right? It’s a big lake. There has to be thousands of possible shots for tourists to take, right?
Nope. I’d wager that many people who have visited Maligne Lake have taken a photograph almost precisely like this one, at least in terms of composition. Do a quick Google Image Search, keywords “Maligne Lake.” Fully half, if not more, of the photographs are narrow variations on the theme of this small island. And this isn’t anything new.
Maybe the photographs are in black and white, or are coloured by hand. Perhaps the resolution changes with the settings and/or quality of the camera, or there is more or less snow or greenery depending on the season. Maybe the trees on the island have grown, or there is a different log floating in the foreground. There are slight changes in angle based on the photographer’s height, or perhaps it is framed slightly differently according to the photographer’s eye for the scene. Nevertheless, in composition and choice of subject there is a striking consistency in shots taken at Maligne Lake. If you further refine your Google image search to “Maligne Lake Spirit Island”, the similarities in composition are even more narrow.
Why is this the case? Is this the photograph that Jasper’s tourism industry “wants” you to take?
Historian David E. Nye, in “Visualizing Eternity: Photographic Constructions of the Grand Canyon”, speaks to the initial difficultly Americans had in attracting tourists to the Grand Canyon. Put simply, it was too big. Ironic, I suppose, because that’s its biggest draw, today. When you imagine the Grand Canyon, you picture “bigness” in your head. But unless it’s the new “Skywalk”, do you “picture” any particular aspect of the Grand Canyon? Since the nineteenth century – well, since the popular rise of tourism period – tourism and photography have been intrinsically linked. It’s a cliché; tourists are inseparable from their cameras. They seek out the most photogenic things for the express purpose of capturing their image. The search for the perfect shot becomes bound up in the touristic experience. So much of touristic sites are viewed through the camera lens. What sites become havens for tourists are often determined by how pleasingly they can be photographed.
But what of the things that can’t be photographed? You can’t fit the entirety of the Grand Canyon into one frame, or even a panoramic shot. Nye argues that that is one of the reasons why the Grand Canyon was so slow to become popular: because it was difficult to photograph. The best shots that showed the most depth could only be taken from the bottom of the canyon, where very few tourists visited. Some early photographers tried to treat the canyon as sort of the reverse of the more familiar mountain landscapes, with little success. What do you train your photographic gaze upon, when the subject of your gaze is so gigantic? The photograph needs a focus, particularly something that is unique to the region, if your goal is to attract tourists there and not elsewhere. In the case of other national parks, it could be a geyser or a waterfall… or an island. I think that that’s what’s happening in these photographs of Maligne Lake. The mountain landscape is gorgeous, but a bit too big to comfortably fit into one frame. Or, if you do take a photograph of the mountains, there’s nothing strikingly unique about it. Spirit Island functions as a wonderful focus, and a symbol for this lake in particular. The landscape surrounding it, by contrast, isn’t atypical of the many other dozens of lakes in the region. Spirit Island and the eye-pleasing composition found there is an identifiable image and symbol of the region. Hence, its appearance on hundreds of postcards and in innumerable tourist scrapbooks.
Spirit Island on Maligne Lake resides in Jasper National Park, which is protected by the Canadian government as a preserve of the natural bounty of the Canadian nation. (Fewer people know of the First Nations who were removed from the “park” upon its creation in the early 20th century, to make sure that the land remained untouched and unused… unless you were a tourist.) Today, to get to Spirit Island, you must go by boat – you must buy a ticket, or theoretically rent a canoe, but it’s a long, long paddle over about 15 km of gorgeous landscape if you do. (Few seem to photograph the passage in between the dock and the island. Or, at the very least, they aren’t considered as striking as the ones of Spirit Island.) You are deposited on this island for about 20 minutes to take in “the view”. You would be a foolish tourist indeed to forget to bring your camera out to photograph this place. Why Spirit Island? Why not the mountains around it? Why not use Spirit Island as a platform to get out into the lake? Why not take photographs from the boat? Tourists have the option of moving about the dock or going through the trees… but many don’t seem to do so. Apparently, it has been determined over the years by consensus that this is one of the best views – the best of angles – to capture the spirit of Jasper. It fits neatly into your camera’s frame. It is uniquely identifiable as a place. Hence, its overwhelming representation on postcards of the region.
But it doesn’t have to be photographed in this way. Observe:
In case you haven’t guessed, this photograph was also taken at Spirit Island – it’s visible in the right of the frame. I had moved about five or ten metres to the left to take this shot. I believe it to also be a fine photograph. The mountains and the island dip down towards the centre of the frame, and the land also meets the water at precisely the middle of the shot. We can see the reflections of the mountains and the sky in the water. I like it, but it’s not a “postcard-worthy” shot. This photograph isn’t nearly as iconic as, well, the photograph of Spirit Island that’s on all of the postcards where the island appears front and centre.
Oh, and as an ultimate sign of betrayal and false advertising: Spirit Island? It isn’t even an island most of the time, except when there’s spring melt-off. It’s a peninsula. I suppose “Spirit Peninsula” doesn’t have the same ring to it.
Post-Script: If you have never been to this region of the Canadian Rockies, you were probably pronouncing the word “Maligne” in your head like the word “malign”, and are probably wondering why such a beautiful area is referred to by a word with such negative connotations (“evil or malignant in disposition, nature, intent or influence”). It is in fact pronounced more like the original French, “Ma Ligne” (I guess on a map it kind of looks like a straight line?). To clarify, for the monolingual anglophones among us, it is pronounced more like like “mah-lean”, as in “lean meat.”
Further Reading (and Viewing):
Nye, David E. “Visualizing Eternity: Photographic Constructions of the Grand Canyon.” In Picturing Place: Photography and the Geographical Imagination. Edited by Joan M. Schwartz. London: I.B. Tauris: 2003.
I ran across this postcard on Peel’s Prairie Provinces a few months ago, and I was struck by it for a multitude of reasons, only some of which I can put into words. (What specifically is the “punctum” for me with this image, to borrow Barthes’ terminology?),I find myself noticing details – the three lines on the left side of his coat, indicating it to be a capote made from a Hudson’s Bay Company point blanket (still all the rage), a slightly furrowed brow, the gleam of a ring on his finger, his slightly hunched almost defensive pose, the casual way he holds his pipe.
But most of all I feel that I was struck by his gaze, staring directly at the camera – and therefore, us, the viewers, over a hundred years later. What is communicated in this gaze? What, if anything, can we know of this man?
Recently, I read a fascinating article by Catherine Lutz and Jane Collins, “The Photograph as an Intersection of Gazes”, which was a chapter in a book on different aspects of reading and understanding National Geographic magazine. They pointed out something startling to me about choices in representation of the “gaze” of their photographic subjects. Namely, when it came to different types of posing in photographs, (“to a statistically significant degree”), “Those who are culturally defined as weak – women, children, people of color, the poor, the tribal rather than the modern, those without technology – are more likely to face the camera, the more powerful to be represented looking elsewhere.”(199)
Subaltern peoples, particularly in the cases of women and children, are often depicted photographically staring directly into the camera. (Think about the famous Afghan girl.) It is perceived as being more both a more direct and more naïve gaze; perhaps they are curious about the camera or the person who wields it. Those with power, who are perceived to have intellect and so on, are often depicted gazing into the distance, as if they have more important things on their minds than the camera taking their photograph. Thinking back on examples of photography in the 19th century, I can picture many examples of photographs which fit this mold. Think of all of the depictions of Queen Victoria in which she is in profile or slightly off-centre. Traditionally, however, working class folks (“the rougher classes”) were depicted with direct gazes, whilemiddle- to high-class subjects with a (at times) more casual lounging posture, gazing to the side as if lost in thought. Both, especially in a studio setting, are constructed poses, but what I find intriguing are the subconscious ways in which such poses speak to the individual’s personality and background (at least as imagined by the photographer and viewer).
That being said, these authors were speaking of a specific set of photographs accompanying photo essays published quite some time after the postcard above. (Judging by the use of “N.W.T.” (Northwest Territory) instead of “Alberta” to designate the location of Qu’Appelle, and the format which places the message on the front alongside the image instead of the reverse with the address, this postcard likely predates the formation of Alberta as a province in 1905). However, the photographs were selected by the magazine editor because in some way they were compelling photographs that helped them tell the story they wished to tell. Whether consciously or subconsciously, the editors selected photographs that fit into this model, and rejecting others. Creators of postcards, too, wanted to sell compelling images that didn’t jar overmuch with the understandings their purchasers held of the world, a region or its peoples.
As a viewer, I definitely feel a sense of connection with the man depicted in this photograph. The purchaser and sender of this postcard certainly must have felt some element of this connection as well, judging by the message on the front: “Dear Teddy: – How would you like to greet this man? – Aunt J—(Jason?)” Photographs like this one facilitate imagined encounters between the “Indians” of the West and interested (likely white) parties elsewhere. Intellectually, I understand that the man pictured in this image was looking at a photographer and his camera lens, but due to the nature of the medium, he seems to be looking directly at me, erasing the distance of both time and space. Photography – and photographic postcards – facilitate such connections.
Nevertheless, in the case of postcards at least, such imaginary encounters are not accompanied by much information aside from just enough to tantalize the receiver. Is he truly a medicine man? How does he live? What does he believe? We think that we know this man – we meet his gaze as he “meets” ours – but how much can we truly know of him?
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.)
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:“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?