In 1996, the last of Canada’s Indian Residential Schools closed, ending a 120 year old program that took First Nations children from their homes and placed them in church-run boarding schools, where they were forbidden to speak their language or practice their traditions in an attempt to assimilate them into western culture. Many of the children were sexually and physically abused. Since then, the extent of the damage done by the system has begun to come to light, and in 2008, the Canadian government issued its first formal apology. Signs of Your Identity, an new book of photographs and interviews by Daniella Zalcman, published this month by FotoEvidence (the project won the 2016 FotoEvidence Book Award), collects interviews and pairs of portraits of First Nations men and women who attended the schools.
In brief quotes, the subjects describe harrowing experiences at the schools, and the effects of the abuse they received on their adult lives. The book includes two photographs of each person, an underexposed portrait set against a plain background, and an image that combines that portrait with a fragment of landscape. A man who spent eight years at Gordon Indian Residential School before he ran away to a nearby farm is pictured in a Western hat; in the composite image, a small-town crossroads is superimposed on his portrait. A cloudy sky obscures the face of a woman who spent two years at Muskowekwan Indian Residential School and describes her struggle with alcoholism. The double exposure effect suggests both memories of specific places and more illusive states of mind. As Marlene McNab writes in an essay in the book, “Rather than risk forgetting what happened in residential school and be forever silenced by the suffering, the contributors to Signs of Your Identity are showcased in images that appear almost three dimensional and words that are raw testimonies to the truth of what they experienced.”
Zalcman writes in an afterword that as a non-Indigenous journalist, she was hesitant to take up Indigenous stories. But she sees the book as a needed corrective that could make use of her ability to bring the story “to those who otherwise might not listen.” As she writes, “This book’s genesis is rooted in my own shame that this version of history was excluded from my textbooks. Indigenous narratives remain a footnote in western education. What little is shared has been flattened and whitewashed. There is a deliberate forgetting of the legacies of colonialism and of the effects of intergenerational trauma. I hope that, in some small way, I can help correct that.”
An exhibition of the work, along with other finalists for the FotoEvidence Book Award, Mario Cruz, Narciso Contreras, Hossein Fatemi and Ingetje Tadros, opens October 26 at St. John the Divine in New York City.