One of the central issues in any truth and reconciliation commission is that of the relationship between visibility and invisibility. Often, these commissions focus on a previously denied, suppressed, or obscured history and seeks to bring this past into the present. In the Canadian context, the way survivors of the Indian Residential Schools share their experiences will take many shapes and forms. In addition to testimonies and narratives, people will tell their stories by contributing to a new visual archive as well.

At the recent conference in North Bay, several Nipissing First Nation community members came forward to discuss their experiences and the legacies of the Indian Residential School system. Some of these speakers made the issue of the residential schools visible in different ways.

Chief Marianna Couchie spoke of her father’s experience at the Garnier Indian Residential School. She had made a special t-shirt printed with her father’s assigned number  and initials of the school. She explained that he was at times only referred to by his number: 76.

Doreen Bellaire also spoke of the legacy of the schools. She held up a collage of materials left behind by her mother, Delina Commanda, a woman she described as incredibly strong. Delina attended the Industrial Residential School for Indian Girls in Spanish, Ontario. The collage was compiled from her mother’s writing, photos, a set of keys, and buttons among other mementos.

Thank you to Marianna and Doreen for allowing me to share their stories and images at And thank you to all those people at the conference who shared their experiences.

Thursday, February 4th, 2010 – 6pm – 20 Cooper Square, 5th Floor, New York, NY

DSC04120I was recently in Ottawa for the annual Canadian Communication Association’s (CCA) Conference where I presented a short paper entitled: Before Truth: Contextualizing History, Memory and Nation in the Age of Truth and Reconciliation. In the paper, I briefly explored the international context of Truth and Reconciliation Commissions (TRCs) and drew comparisons between the fledgling Canadian Commission and the completed South African TRC. Given the challenges the Canadian Commission has faced in its first year, one of my main arguments in the paper was to highlight the need for multiple, local approaches to reconciliation.

While in Ottawa, I had the pleasure of visiting the National Archives where they are currently showing an exhibit entitled “‘We were so far away…’ The Inuit Experience of Residential Schools.” The small exhibit focuses on the recollections of eight Inuit students who attended various residential schools. Organized by the Legacy of Hope Foundation, the exhibit includes photographs, video, sound, and large-scale posters in English, French and Inuktitut. 

The exhibit displays old photos provided by the students through a slide projector. Connected to a motion sensor, the slides automatically start to change as one steps towards the exhibit. The soft clicking of the changing slides creates a rhythmic melody for the images. Largely in black and white, the photographs projected onto the white walls of the exhibition space are beautiful in their ability to capture the everyday experiences at the schools. The images of students at their desks, in uniform, in some cases smiling into the camera both conceal and reveal the difficult experiences of the students, which are elaborated in the surrounding posters. The exhibit is on at the National Archives in Ottawa until September 7th, 2009.


bent_boxOne of the issues I’ve been exploring in my recent research involves the ways in which cultural memory is represented through visual culture. How is history communicated through art, architecture, museums and/or memorials to future generations?  In the case of traumatic memory, what are the particular challenges involved in this communication? And how can artistic representation also incorporate issues of survival and resilience as well?

In the case of the IRS TRC in Canada, Coast Salish artist Luke Marsten created the “TRC Bentwood Box,” a box made from a continuous piece of red cedar bark. Marsten’s work incorporates both personal and collective narratives. The artwork carved into the wood pays respect to Marsten’s grandmother’s experiences as a student of the IRS and also represents different aspects from First Nations, Inuit and Métis students who survived of fell victim to the schools.

Once the Commission is re-established and begins to fulfill its mandate, the box will travel with the IRS TRC across the nation.

Image from the TRC website.

“In Media Res” is dedicated to experimenting with collaborative, multi-modal forms of online scholarship. Each day, a different scholar will curate a 30-second to 3-minute video clip/visual image slideshow accompanied by a 300-350-word impressionistic response.

May 4th – 9th, 2009 is dedicated to Indigenous Media. One of my favorite professors, Dr. Faye Ginsburg, is the first scholar in the series. She writes on Isuma Igloolik and their efforts to use new media to disseminate indigenous media and create community. Check out In Media Res here

Update: Michelle Raheja contributed to in media res’ indigenous media week with a post entitled “Not Ready to Make Nice”: Indigenous Music Video and Lessons of History” which focuses on the work of hip hop artists Wahwahtay Benais and his music video called “Indigenous Holocaust.” It focuses on the legacies of the Indian boarding schools and is worth checking out. Click here.

Public School 1

March 26, 2009

Here are a few pics from a recent visit to PS1. The contemporary art center was founded in 1971 as the Institute for Art and Urban Resources Inc., an organization devoted to organizing exhibitions in underutilized and abandoned spaces across New York City.

The space is amazing. Converted from an old public school, the building retains its institutional feel while the artwork – painted on the walls, embedded in the floor, placed in darkened rooms – makes striking use of the space.

Click on the thumbnails to enlarge the images.

Upcoming Event: Truth-Tellers

February 22, 2009


“When the smoke clears, can we handle the truth?”

Full Spectrum and New York Theatre Workshop present THE TRUTH-TELLERS, a free panel discussion with five creators who dig beneath the official story to the complex, gritty underside. On February 26th, from 6:30-9:30, panelists Milagros de la Torre [artist/photographer], Alberto Ferreras [author/filmmaker/ performance artist], David Henderson [poet/author/activist], Meg McLagan [filmmaker/cultural anthropologist] and Liza Jessie Peterson [actress/poet/playwright] will discuss the ideas and experiences behind their work, and explore the larger question to us as a society, “When the smoke clears, can we handle the truth?”. The panel will be moderated by K. Neycha Herford [musician/transformational counselor/new media journalist]. 

This free event will begin with a screening of excerpts of The Peculiar Patriot by Liza Jessie Peterson; and Lioness by Meg McLagan and Daria Sommers.