In Blanket Toss Under The Midnight Sun (Penguin/Random House) Paul Seesequasis has compiled photographs from a variety of sources to offer readers a depiction of Indigenous life in North America few Non-Natives are aware existed. Canada, like the rest of the American hemisphere, over the years has been complicit in both physical and cultural genocide against the variety of people who were living here prior to contact with Europeans.
What else can you call the deliberate destruction of food sources, (killing the American Bison to near extinction in the wild) denial of ability to feed oneself, deliberate exposure to disease, the killing of unarmed men, women and children and the efforts put into destroying culture, heritage and language if not genocide? While most of those overt forms of degradation are no longer happening, a persistent culture of stereotyping and not seeing Indigenous people as equal persists across Canada.
Which is what makes Blanket Toss Under The Midnight Sun so invaluable. The photographs Seesequasis has compiled for this collection span the period during which the government of Canada was forcibly removing children from their communities and incarcerating them in schools in an attempt to “beat the savage out of them”. While this decimated many families and destroyed the lives of thousands, if not millions, people still had to live.
In fact it was a comment his mother made which inspired Seesequasis to start work on this project. She had said she was tired of hearing all the negative things about those times and that there were strong, positive things happening in the various communities. Dating from around the turn of the 19th century up to the 1970s, these photos show us examples of strong and vibrant communities and we see people as individuals not as some stereotypical mass.
For these aren’t Edward Curtis type photos, with the subjects dressed in regalia the photographer carried with him so they’d look like they were “supposed to”. These are pictures of farmers, hunters, protestors, rock bands, and families at play and at work. From Cape Dorset in the far North to the Badlands in the mid west, to James Bay in Northern Quebec and the West Coast, we meet Inuit, Blackfeet, Cree, Ojibway, Dene, and other nations who have lived here for thousands of years.
The amount of research Seesequasis has done for this book is staggering. First there was finding the caches of photos, than identifying who took them and finding out about them. (realizing that many of the subjects and the photographers themselves could easily have been dead for years) Finally there was the task of identifying the subjects of each photo.
Here social media came to his aid. He posted photos on line and asked people who saw them if they recognized the subjects. The responses were overwhelming both for the number of names he received and in peoples’ reactions to the actual images. Seeing pictures of aunts and uncles, grandparents and old friends they didn’t know existed drew forth the kinds of stories which gave the photos context and makes this book so enthralling.
For each image in the book we are told a story – and while a photo may be worth a thousand words, the words accompanying a photo elaborates and gives it depth. Even better is the fact the stories are being told by those who know or knew the people in the photos. We learn about them as individuals.
We also learn about the photographers in the same way. While some were Indigenous (Peter Pitseolak – Inuk, James Jerome – Gwich’in and George Johnston) the majority were taken by Europeans. However, these were people who lived in the communities and were friends with the people they were photographing.
In fact, what makes Blanket Toss Under The Midnight Sun so effective is how it feels like we’ve been invited to look through a family photo album with members of the extended family telling us the stories they either associate with each picture or the individuals involved. In this way we learn the complicated history of a beaver purse or how difficult it is to do a rock tour by canoe in the bush.
Indigenous people of North America are used as mascots, have been depicted as barbarians, drunks, victims and noble savages – but hardly ever as simply human. Blanket Toss Under The Moonlight Sun by Paul Seesequasis brings together a stunning collection of images and stories which might just help to start bringing about a change in that perspective.