Reflections of Ikahuak is a digital exhibit that explores the tension between sovereignty and community in Ikahuak (Sachs Harbour, Banks Island) in the early 1950s—publishing for the first time hundreds of photographs taken by my grandfather, Cst. D.C. McDougall, during his time in Ikahuak, where he built the first R.C.M.P. detachment—a pre-fabricated building—in 1953, the project interrogates, through the photographic archive and interactive digital mapping, the narratives of colonial contact that mark Ikahuak’s history. The fact that the photographs were taken by my grandfather (who passed before I was born) certainly constitutes my motivations for taking this project on. The photos have never been shown outside of our family and had not even been digitized in full until I pursued this work. My grandfather’s career was divided into two parts: his time in the arctic, and his time in southern Saskatchewan. As my research has revealed, he found his time in the arctic the most enjoyable years of his career.
While much of my work focuses on the transition from postmodernism to post-postmodernism via digitality in North American literature, some of my more recent work has explored digitality in Indigenous literatures specifically. Much of this work highlights how digital technologies and tools can be used to decolonize the ongoing structures of colonialism. With this in mind, my project addresses the complicated relationship between sovereignty and community by contextualizing the photographs with their circumstances and narratives through biography, cross-referencing, and most crucially and hopefully in the near future, through community outreach and dialogue with elders on the island. While many of the photographs depict life on the island and the individuals and families that shaped it, most of these individuals as yet are unnamed. The photos are certainly accented by the colonial structures that infiltrated island life in the early 1950s, such as the R.C.M.P.’s presence, the staking of the Union Jack, the celebration of Dominion Day, and the Residential School system.
In addition to a digital photo archive, and in keeping with the importance of naming projects that allow Indigenous peoples to pinpoint ancestors and elders who have remained nameless in archival texts, Reflections of Ikahuak includes an interactive and collaborative digital map of Ikahuak and the surrounding area, that offers a foundation for local users to build their histories through narrative, photography, identification, oral storytelling, and so forth. This invitation of multiple authors to collaborate digitally is an attempt to confront the unresolved tension between community and sovereignty and to reposition it in cyberspace to self-consciously dismantle the static nature of traditional print mapping—a deeply colonial practice—in favor of shifting and haphazard contribution. I hope that this kind of self-consciousness helps address the tense relationship between sovereignty and community in a way that positively impacts Canadian movements towards reconciliation.
When I set out to work on this project, I knew that traveling to Ikahuak to reach out to community members and look through the photographs would be the most difficult aspect. This difficulty is mostly because, as a settler scholar, I must work diligently and respectfully to build relationships and trust within the community before engaging in this kind of work to avoid repeating the violent “exchanges” of the past between settlers and Indigenous peoples in Canada. While I had in touch with a few community members who were helping me to plan this visit, I was unable to make this trip in June due to the COVID-19 pandemic, which has proven to be my biggest obstacle. As so much of this project necessarily relies on that community outreach, and as such travel would have been impossible and frankly, irresponsible given the circumstances, the project remains incomplete. It might seem strange not to resort to digital communication to fulfill this aspect of the project. Still, as the repatriation of the photographs and the naming of the individuals depicted in them is so central to the project, I feel strongly that this kind of “giving back” needs to be done in-person. It is my hope that I can make this research trip in 2021.
One of the most outstanding aspects of the Digital Matters Faculty Grant is that upon receiving one, I was immediately a part of the Digital Matters community. The way in which the Digital Matters put me in conversation with other Grantees and scholars built that sense of support and community. I was pleasantly surprised to see striking parallels between my project and those of other Grantees, which meant we had lots of opportunities to share resources, tools, processes, and troubleshooting methods in a way that, to me, reflects some of the most crucial qualities of DH. The Grant also introduced me to the many resources offered at the University of Utah. I would never have been able to do the kind of digital preservation that I wanted to without the help of the staff at the Digital Library Services and Justin Sorensen, the GIS specialist through the Marriott Library. Since I began working at the University of Utah, and since I am Visiting Assistant Professor of Digital Humanities, I have tried to attend as many Digital Matters events as possible and get as involved as possible. I saw the Grant as an opportunity to become even more engrossed in the University of Utah’s DH community, and as an opportunity to pursue a project that I have been tentatively keeping on the academic sidelines for the past two years. It was a pleasure to continue this work and make progress on something dear to me.
I think the most crucial insight that I have gained is that thinking about these photographs as having “data” or even “metadata” that needs to be simply collected and input so that the digital exhibit and interactive map can function does not at all comply with or respond to Indigenous ways of knowing or even sharing knowledge. For the time being, I am using Omeka S, but I’m not 100% satisfied with it because I’m not sure this platform reflects the dynamic and collaborative nature of the project, nor does it reflect the kind of discursive process that I envision with the digital map. While so much of this project was an exploration of how digital tools could facilitate necessary decolonization, I have become even more aware that, even in using digital tools for decolonial possibility, those exact tools can simultaneously repeat colonial tendencies. For instance, how do I attribute the photos to my grandfather as the photographer without solidifying a kind of “ownership” over images of unidentified Indigenous peoples? Further, how can I then repatriate them? Even thinking about archiving the photos or collecting them is quite possessive in a colonial sense. A lot of my research has just opened me up to more ways to deconstruct those colonial frameworks. In a similar vein, this project has made me realize how essential in-person research, archival visits, and community outreach are, even to the most digitally engaged projects. Because I was unable to make my trip to Ikahuak, much of my research was reduced to guesswork via cross-referencing. My archival research at the University of Calgary was helpful in this respect, but it also reflects how history and archival texts are imperially rendered.
Although so much of my project remains unfinished, I would advise potential faculty grant applicants to take risks regardless of whether those risks will result in a failure. I knew my project had lots of potential to fail—COVID or not; there remains the possibility that community members will have no interest in speaking to me about the photographs or will not be interested in contributing to a digital map. Despite this, I feel very strongly that the photographs should be repatriated and shared. I think a digital map offers a strong avenue for decolonizing settler imaginations of space and history because of how dynamic and collaborative it can be. I would also say expect your project to shift and change. What began as a very hands-on and practical project turned very quickly into something more distanced and theoretical. This theoretical emphasis will only inform the practical work to come, hopefully, in the next year.
I think my project has highlighted digital mapping specifically as a decolonial strategy rather well. But from here, I think I would be interested in investigating how digital tools could be used to address settler-Indigenous relations productively. Because I am a settler scholar, I considered it impertinent to throw emails out to elders in the Ikahuak community without first building a relationship with those individuals, so I am interested in thinking through ethical and respectful ways for settler scholars and Indigenous communities to communicate around projects such as this because I believe there is so much more to be done with archival material.
I think the most crucial insight that I have gained is that thinking about these photographs as having “data” or even “metadata” that needs to be simply collected and input so that the digital exhibit and interactive map can function does not at all comply with or respond to Indigenous ways of knowing or even sharing knowledge.
–Aislinn McDougall, Spring 2020 DM Faculty Grant