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Jeff Thomas

June 10 – July 9, 2011

With Invited Guests: Adrian Stimson and DJ “Bear Witness”
Memory Landscape is the “Not” in Resistance is [Not] Futile

In 1994, I came across a dual portrait of a young Cree boy named Thomas Moore, who had attended the Regina Indian Industrial School in the 1890s. The first portrait shows Moore dressed in tribal style clothing and holding a pistol in one hand. The second portrait shows Moore transformed into what would have been considered a model student, with his hair cut short and wearing a military style uniform.

The Thomas Moore portraits were included in the Department of Indian Affairs Annual Report from 1897 to illustrate how residential schools were converting a tribal people from “savages” to “civilized members” of Canadian society. I included the Thomas Moore portraits in an exhibition I curated for Library and Archives Canada-Where are the Children? Healing the Legacy of the Residential Schools. The exhibition opened on National Aboriginal Day in 2002, and continues to travel across Canada.

In each portrait, the expression on Moore’s face doesn’t change. I wanted to know what his expression was telling me-was he defiant, complacent, or resigned to his fate? These questions stayed with me over the years and I decided to build an exhibition of my own work around the Thomas Moore portraits. Like far too many indigenous families, I lost my father and grandfather to alcoholism. I was, however, fortunate to have lived with my paternal grandmother as a young boy, and we travelled back and forth between Buffalo, New York and the Six Nations Reserve in southern Ontario.

While visiting family elders at Six Nations, I learned about my Iroquois history and culture from my great aunt, Emily General, a prominent and respected activist. When I returned to the city, I was filled with questions for my teachers. I wanted to know why we were not learning about this history and why Indian people were treated so differently. When I first saw the photograph of Thomas Moore I remembered how I felt at his age, so curious about being an Indian living in a city, so curious about why, when I was with family at home or on the reserve, I didn’t think about these things. Why was it only in the outside world that I felt isolated and invisible?

These questions usually went unanswered. I felt that I was facing a wall of silence. What I came away with was the disjuncture between our indigenous past and the contemporary world. Back at Six Nations, ancient rituals, ceremonies, and languages were still being used and practised. But it didn’t transfer to the city and to the bars where so many Indian men spent their time.

Emily once told me before travelling back to the city: “Remember who you are and where you come from.” When I got back to the city it was late and none of my friends were at our usual corner hangout, so I went to the playground by myself. I sat there and tried to pay attention to what I could see, and smell, and hear all around me. I told myself over and over again: “This is who you are.” I also thought about my elders back on the reserve and thought: “That is who you are as well.” Photography would provide me with the tools to explore, observe, and record these worlds and give me the creative space to produce my story.

It is a story of trying to reconcile the loss of male Indian role models in my life, but also one of trying to provide my son with the positive examples my elders gave me. One day I was watching the movie Star Trek: First Contact, which included the race of evil colonizers called the Borg. The Borg’s mantra-“resistance is futile”-resonated on so many levels. I wondered if Thomas Moore went face to face with a 19th-century version of the Borg while at the Regina Industrial School. While it may have changed his outer appearance, I’m sure his memory of back home was intact.