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UBC Theses and Dissertations

From negative to positive : B.A. Haldane, nineteenth century Tsimshian photographer Askren, Mique̕ l Icesis


Metlakatla, Alaska, was established in 1887 by eight hundred and twenty-three Tsimshian people who, under the guidance of lay missionary, William Duncan, migrated from British Columbia in quest of government-sanctioned land rights and the liberty to follow nondenominational Christianity. Through a strategic dissemination of texts and images by Duncan and his supporters, such as Henry Wellcome, Metlakatla was positioned as the epitome of "successful assimilation" of Indigenous people into the wider colonial project. Today, this depiction continues to be the dominant representation of Metlakatla in the literature on the Northwest Coast. I am a direct descendant of the Tsimshians who founded Metlakatla. Based on my life experiences and our oral history, I believe that this colonial narrative, which depicts our conversion to Christianity as a complete rejection of our cultural traditions, has been socially detrimental to our community, by excising our stories of resistance and cultural continuity from written accounts of our history. The primary objective of my thesis is to challenge and disrupt this colonial narrative by bringing to light a counter-narrative that was captured through the life and photographic lens of one of our people, Benjamin Alfred (B.A.) Haldane (1874-1941). Having opened a portrait studio in Metlakatla in 1899, Haldane became the first professional Native photographer on the Northwest Coast. Few publications, however, discuss his work and none explore his life and career extensively. This thesis not only provides the first in-depth analysis of Haldane’s photography but it also documents a counter-narrative which until now has only existed in our oral history. Through archival and community-based research into Haldane’s life, as well as the lives of some of the people he photographed, such as Sidney Campbell and Joseph Hayward, I complicate assimilationist paradigms that are prevalent in the study of the Northwest Coast First Nations. By framing Haldane’s practice as performing strategic acts of "photographic sovereignty", as defined by Navajo photographer Hulleah Tsinhnahjinne (2003), this thesis demonstrates the complex and subversive ways in which photography was used by Haldane and other Tsimshian people in Metlakatla, who incorporated it into our cultural practices, as a significant means of resisting colonial authority.

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