Bringing our History into Focus: Re-Developing the work of B.A. Haldane, 19th Century Tsimshian Photographer by Mique’l AskrenApril 16, 2010
Comment from Lara Evans: This new post is an article by Mique’l Askren, a graduate student working toward her Ph.D. in art history at University of British Columbia. Constructing a history of Native photography that involves Native people behind the camera instead of just in front of it is an important task. Askren has started us on this path with the following examination of the work of Benjamin Alfred Haldane (1874-1941), a Tsimshian photographer in Metlakatla in the late 1800s-early 1900s. She very generously submitted the article and images to the blog Not Artomatic.
Mique’l (pronounced my-key-el) Askren is Tsminshian and Tlingit from Metlakatla, Alaska. In addition to her scholarly work, she is a member of Git Hayetsk Dancers, an internationally-renown Northwest Coast mask dancing group based out of Vancouver, BC.
My research began here (Figure 1), among the images produced from the one hundred and sixty-three glass plate negatives that were salvaged from the fire of our local waste facility. The negatives are studio portraits of First Nations men, women, children, and families taken during the early 20th century. These burned and broken negatives act as a constant reminder of our near loss of this rich source of history. The photographer is Benjamin Alfred Haldane (1874-1941), a Tsimshian man known to our community of Metlakatla, Alaska by his nick-name B.A. or Ya-ya (Sm’algyak1 for grandfather) by the generations of his descendants (Figure 2). Since most of his photographs were removed from our community and incorporated into the host of anonymously produced images in museum archives, he is now remembered by his own people more for his remarkable musical abilities than as a photographer. However, the discovery of these negatives has turned our focus back to his photography and to the lens through which he framed our history. What has developed is the realization that just as the heat and flames has distorted these images of our ancestors, the literature on our community’s history, written without our own images and perspectives, continues to distort Metlakatla’s representation in the history of the Northwest Coast. With “Seeing RED – a call to acknowledge our presence” as the theme of this issue, I see my contribution as illustrating how our presence, as First Nations people, can be strengthened through challenging colonial versions of our history and reclaiming ownership of our representation.
Metlakatla, Alaska was founded in 1887 by eight hundred and twenty-three Tsimshian people who, under the guidance of lay missionary William Duncan, migrated from Metlakatla, British Columbia in quest of government-sanctioned land rights and the liberty to follow nondenominational Christianity. In the wider missionary project that followed European colonization in many parts of the world, our community was considered a Christian utopia. Photographs and stories of Metlakatla were circulated in books and newspapers throughout Canada, the United States, and Britain as evidence of one of the most successful missions – the formation of an economically self-sufficient, Christian, First Nations community. The dissemination of these materials and later anthropological publications positioned Metlakatla as the epitome of the colonial agenda of missionization and assimilation of Indigenous peoples. Today, this depiction continues to dominate our community’s representation in the literature on First Nations history on the Northwest Coast.
I am a direct descendant of the Tsimshians who moved to Metlakatla, Alaska with Duncan in 1887. My great-great grandparents were married by him. My great-grandmother, who passed away when I was fourteen years old, attended his school. This history is recent to us. Based on my life experiences and our oral history, it is my opinion that this colonial narrative, which depicts our conversion to Christianity as a complete rejection of our traditional lifeways and so-called assimilation into Euro-American culture, has overshadowed the stories of resistance and cultural continuity that persist in our community. The primary objective of this essay and my on-going research is to challenge and disrupt this colonial narrative by bringing to light a counter-narrative of Metlakatla’s history that was captured through the photographic lens of one of our own people, Benjamin Alfred (B.A) Haldane.
Although B.A. is considered one of the first professional Native photographers on the Northwest Coast, few publications have discussed his images and none explore his life and career extensively.2 Adhering to the ethics and protocols of researching in First Nations communities, I received permission from B.A.’s family and our Band Council to do this research for my Master’s thesis.3 As it is also a responsibility of researchers to give back to the First Nations communities in which they work, I also hold forums in Metlakatla to present my work at its various stages for their feedback.
The images that I focus on in this essay frame B.A.’s imagery and practice as performing strategic acts of what internationally renowned photographer Hulleah Tsinhnahjinnie (Diné, Seminole, and Muskogee) defines as “photographic sovereignty.”4 In her essay, “When is a Photograph Worth a Thousand Words?” Tsinhnahjinnie locates agency in what she identifies as photographic sovereignty of the Indigenous subjects in ethnographic images taken by non-Indigenous photographers. Empowering the vantage point of the subject, she challenges the so-called “expert narrative” of the image by contextualizing Indigenous peoples in the various epistemologies, ceremonies, spiritualities, oral histories, and biographies in which they functioned at that time and to which they continue to be connected today. Viewing images through this lens, Tsinhnahjinnie insists on returning power to the Indigenous people in these photographs by telling their stories of resistance, resilience, and survival.5 Her work makes space for further examination of photographic sovereignty as it applies to the interpretation of images taken by B.A. and other early First Nations photographers. Building on Tsinhnahjinnie’s position, I empower the vantage points of both the First Nations photographer and his subjects. From this location, I will contextualize B.A.’s photography within its socio-political circumstances in order to illuminate the ways in which both his practice and imagery assert a particular type of photographic sovereignty.
Of the Lax Gibou (Wolf Clan) from the Ginadoiks tribe of the Tsimshian, B.A. Haldane was born to Matthew and Ada Haldane on June 15, 1874 in Metlakatla, British Columbia.6 B.A. was thirteen years old when he participated in the mass migration which established our community in 1887. Two years later, his formal schooling was cut short when after completing the grade three reading material B.A. was expelled by Duncan for the reason that “there was nothing more for him to learn.” 7 Like other missionaries at this time, Duncan tried to keep his First Nations converts at a level of education that would not threaten his authority. However, B.A. did not allow this experience to discourage him from continuing his education on his own. An avid reader with remarkable aptitude for learning, he taught himself both music and photography from books.8 B.A. played the piano, pipe organ, cornet, trombone, and violin as well as composed both orchestral music and translated Tsimshian songs to sheet music.9 From the time he was a young adult until late in his life, B.A. held the positions of band and choir director of the Metlakatla Christian Church in addition to teaching music in other First Nations communities and organizing several brass bands.10
In 1899, B.A. established a business as a “scenic and portrait photographer” and opened a portrait studio in Metlakatla with the standard props, backdrops, and floor décor of the period. Senior Collections Manager at the Royal British Columbia Museum, Dan Savard, has deduced that B.A. was “the lone professional” among other Native photographers who were active on the Northwest Coast at this time, such as George Hunt (Kwakwaka’wakw) and Louis Shotridge (Tlingit), because he was the only one who owned a studio.11 By the 1890s, First Nations people were commissioning studio portraits in unprecedented numbers.12 Those who traveled from various communities throughout the Northwest Coast to have their portrait taken in B.A.’s studio, may have found additional prestige and meaning in having their images made by another First Nations person. His studio portraits adhered to conventions emphasizing wealth and respectability that were commonly reserved for images of Euro-American settlers (Figure 3).13
In the late 1890s, B.A. started to teach music and take photographs in First Nations communities along the Northwest Coast. In 1903 and 1914, B.A. returned to the Nass River in British Columbia, where he had previously spent much time teaching music, to take photographs of what Duncan referred to as “heathen festivities.” As an early resident of Metlakatla, Alaska, B.A. lived under the “Declaration of Residents,” eight rules constructed by Duncan that outlawed the practice of ancient ceremonies and beliefs and made it mandatory to observe the Sabbath, attend school, and to be clean, industrious, and honest, with additional rules regarding land ownership and loyalty to the United States government.14 Rule five instructed: “to never attend heathen festivities, or to countenance heathen customs in other villages.” In light of this rule and the 1884 Canadian legislation outlawing potlatching, the socio-political circumstances in which B.A.’s practice and the people in his images exercised photographic sovereignty becomes apparent.
By 1905, colonial authorities viewed photographs taken at potlatches as concrete evidence of illegal activities15. In a 1907 court case, a group of Kwakwaka’wakw people were even fully prosecuted as violators of the Potlatch Law using photographs taken years earlier as evidence.16 Both B.A.’s 1903 and the 1914 photographs of a high-ranking Nisga’a family of the village Laxgaltisap (Greenville, B.C.) and Gitlakdamiks (Aiyansh B.C.), shows men, women, and children wearing and displaying their ceremonial regalia and objects (Figures 4). The large amount of eagle-down that is noticeably dispersed over the people and floor in both photographs indicates that these images were taken directly after a potlatch or ceremony. Thus, the Nisga’a people in these images and B.A. were putting themselves at risk of prosecution by photographing this activity. Living under Duncan’s Declaration of Residents, B.A. could have also put in jeopardy his home and business as well. However, his position as a leader in our community allowed his work not only to flourish against Duncan’s “authority” but also to strengthen Metlakatla’s long standing resistance. This is also apparent in B.A.’s photographs of Edward Marsden’s (Tsimshian) and Lucy Kinninook’s (Tlingit) wedding reception in 1901 which shows people from our community openly wearing ceremonial regalia, which were prohibited by Duncan (Figure 5). Edward, who also took part in the migration to Metlakatla in 1887, graduated from Marietta College in Ohio and was ordained at Lane Theological Seminary in 1897. Against Duncan’s orders, he began the movement for a Presbyterian Church in our community, which was fully established in 1922. Edward and Lucy’s invitation to our community to wear their regalia to their wedding was an outward protest against Duncan forcing people to give up their ceremonial objects upon being baptized and moving to Alaska.
B.A.’s photographs were also used by our community members, such as Sidney Campbell, to assert ceremonial and hereditary privileges. Sidney Campbell (ca. 1849-1934) was a young boy when Duncan first arrived on the coast of British Columbia in 1857 and he participated in the migration to Metlakatla in 1887. Of the Gispudwada (Killer Whale Clan) of the Ginadoiks tribe of the Tsimshian, Sidney’s S’malgyax name was Neeshlut, which was given to him during his initiation in and activities as a Gitsontk at Port Simpson, British Columbia.17 An exclusive society carver, the Gitsontk made objects imbued with supernatural powers to be used in the ceremonies of secret societies. Sidney is one of the few documented members of the Gitsontk.18 B.A. photographed Sidney as he continued to carve ceremonial objects in Metlakatla including full-size totem poles. Around 1910, B.A. photographed Sidney and a group of men with whom he shared his Gitsontk teachings in an area on the outskirts of our community (Figure 6). In this image Sidney is wearing the ceremonial regalia which he brought over from British Columbia despite Duncan’s demands. The remote location in which B.A. took this photograph compared to his images of people in regalia at Edward Marsden’s wedding alludes to the effort of Sidney and these other men to remove themselves from public, which is the protocol of the Gitsontk during their ceremonies.
It is clear that in the socio-political circumstances of both Canada and Alaska that B.A.’s imagery and practice functioned as a dual means of photographic sovereignty both from his perspective as a photographer and from the perspectives of the First Nations people he photographed. These images have given our community visual affirmations which confirm our oral history concerning our ancestors efforts to strengthen and maintain our cultural traditions, values, and belief. The personal histories that I have explored through B.A.’s photography in this essay are only a few examples of those that have been marginalized or excluded from the written accounts of Metlakatla’s history. Many more are still waiting to be told.