Sept. 30, 2020

Historical images open door to sharing

Werklund School researcher employs archival photographs to document stories of residential school survivors
Dr. Tiffany Prete hopes recording and preserving the experiences of residential school survivors will illuminate the truth of how colonization has impacted Niitsitapi lives and community
Dr. Tiffany Prete uses archival photographs to document the stories of residential school survivors Photo courtesy of Tiffany Prete

An inventive research study headed up by Dr. Tiffany Prete, PhD, is providing survivors of Canada’s Indian Residential Schools system with an opportunity to tell their story in their own words. Prete’s project is not only singular for its use of archival photos to produce oral histories but also because it is enabling members of the Blackfoot Confederacy to speak about their experiences in a way that does not focus solely on the trauma incurred.

Prete, pictured above, a SSHRC postdoctoral fellow in the Werklund School of Education, is in the process of collecting photographs of members of the Kainaiwa Nation from various archives across Canada. With the support of an Elder advisory council she will categorize the images and connect with Elders who then select a photo to speak about.

Since being colonized, our Blackfoot history has been written from an outsider’s perspective; it is time for the Blackfoot People to tell their own history, using their own words and their own People to do so.

Providing context

Her inspiration for coupling photos with oral histories came from an earlier research project on residential school policies. She explains that while certain policies were set out in the Indian Act, it was left to the school principals how to implement them, and, in many instances, these policies were captured in images.

“To really make sense of the photographs, you need a survivor to share a story about it. I think using photographs is a non-intrusive tool to get survivors to talk about their residential school experiences that really helps to illustrate, for the rest of us who did not attend a residential school, what it was like to live during that era.”

Respecting privacy

“Presently, I think the research focus has been on the types of abuses that the survivors have suffered while attending residential schools. This work is of the utmost importance in order for Canada to understand what has happened, what needs to be reconciled, and why it needs to be reconciled,” she says. “My approach to this topic is very different. Instead, I hope to offer them an alternative way of talking about residential schools.” 

Positive feedback received from participants in her earlier research leads Prete to believe her current undertaking will have a similar reception. “They expressed to me that my approach was enjoyable for them, as it allowed them to talk about their experiences in a new way that they have never done before.”

That said, Prete is mindful of her participants’ space and their right to keep their personal experiences private — an insight she appreciates as an intergenerational survivor.

“I have to accept the fact that it is likely that I will never know what happened to my mother while she attended residential school. But engaging in this work, and using the approach that I do, I have been able to have conversations with my mother about her residential school experiences without drawing upon the abuses she suffered. This has been so meaningful to me.”

Benefiting community

When her research is completed, Prete plans to publish a book of photographs and accompanying stories, and hopes to create an art exhibit.

“Every research project I write, I write it specifically for my People. I hope they will benefit from the findings. I hope in doing this work, and publishing the book, that it can be used as a tool to start conversations in families between survivors and intergenerational survivors.”

In addition to her role at the Werklund School, Prete holds positions at Red Crow Community College and the University of Alberta, and believes that K-12 schools play an important role in increasing understanding of the legacy of the residential school system.

“This is a topic that we can definitely improve upon in our curriculum and in our classrooms. Acknowledging Orange Shirt Day is one way that schools can teach about residential schools, and the history of what has happened to the Indigenous Peoples of Canada.”

In acknowledgement of Orange Shirt Day, which recognizes survivors of Canada’s residential schools, Dr. Yvonne Poitras Pratt and the Education Students’ Association provided undergraduate education students with free shirts designed by Colouring it Forward’s Diana Frost. The giveaway, made possible through Students’ Union Quality Money funding, provided students with an opportunity to stand in solidarity with all who have been impacted by residential schools.

In the We Can Answer That podcast, Dr. Yvonne Poitras Pratt explains the purpose and importance of acknowledging Orange Shirt Day in K-12 schools. Listen to the podcast