Film Reels

INDIGENEITY & ETHNOGRAPHIC FILM

Community-Based Project for Reclaiming Aboriginal Knowledge and Remembering Colonial Histories through Ethnographic Film

With Dr. Tyler McCreary.

About the project:

This Project focuses on a process of community engagement in northern British Columbia.  Witsuwit'en and Gitxsan elders reinterpret cultural and environmental histories in ethnographic films taken for the National Museum of Canada’s educational programming in the 1920s.  The project produces new educational material and resources for children in local schools.


Project Description

The Carrier Indians of British Columbia (1927) and The Tsimshian Indians of the Skeena River of British Columbia (1927) were both written and directed by Harlan Ingersoll Smith, an archaeologist at the National Museum of Canada and pioneer in documentary film and museum education in Canada.  These films contain the earliest motion picture recordings of members of the Witsuwit'en community and are an important source for Witsuwit'en community history and cultural revitalization.


The Reclaiming Aboriginal Knowledge and Remembering Colonial Histories Project centres around a process of community engagement to reinterpret these early ethnographic films.  This reinterpretation, by Witsuwit'en and Gitxsan elders, is used to construct new multimedia educational materials to teach children about both Aboriginal and colonial histories. The results of this initiative will be reviewed by a process of community consultation before release on a website jointly owned by the three partners: Hagwilget Village Council, School District #54, and the Moricetown Band.  Our process has been guided through the involvement of the Wisuwit'en hereditary chiefs.


Working principally in the Aboriginal communities of Kyah Wiget and Hagwilget, and the adjacent communities of Smithers and Houston, this project will engage the community through a documentation of historic representations of Witsuwit'en people in early ethnographic film. Alongside archival research, Tyler McCreary conducted interviews with Aboriginal elders, hereditary chiefs, and cultural experts to resituate the films in a community context.  Through a series of private screenings and interviews, the elders advise on the most appropriate way to frame the films as a community educational and historical resource.  While the original films did not recognize the names of particular hereditary chiefs and community members, the project restores recognition of these predecessors of current members of the Witsuwit'en.  The film’s records of traditional practices are supplemented with the histories from traditional knowledge holders.


This project serves several objectives:

  • Brings attention to the role of historical cinema in constructing cultural and environmental histories of northern British Columbia;

  • Supports Aboriginal peoples' efforts to bring Aboriginal cultural and ecological knowledge collected in the early twentieth-century back into the community;

  • Educates future generations of Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal children about Aboriginal cultural traditions and traditional ecological knowledge;

  • Demonstrates the impact of colonial policies on Aboriginal communities;

  • Celebrates Aboriginal cultural resiliency;

  • Builds unity and strength within Aboriginal nations through sharing knowledge of Aboriginal history and culture.

This research resulted in three journal articles: The Educational Work of a National MuseumRemixed methodologies in community-based film research, and Projections of Race, Nature, and Ethnographic Childhood in Early Educational Cinema at the National Museum of Canada.

This Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council subgrant project was funded by the Network in Canadian History and Environment from 2010-2011.