Manitoba History: Review: Brock Silversides, The Face Pullers, Photographing Native Canadians 1871-1939

by Dennis McPherson
Department of Indigenous Learning, Lakehead University

Number 29, Spring 1995

Brock Silversides, The Face Pullers, Photographing Native Canadians 1871-1939. Saskatoon: Fifth House Publishers, 192pp., illus. ISBN 1-895618-32-0.

This article was published originally in Manitoba History by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make this online version available as a free, public service. As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

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The concept of attempting to capture the changing faces of the Native experience during the period of contact with white Canadians through photographs is very provocative and appealing. It is quite easy to see how, over time, the pride once held by Native has been bent to conform to stereotypical imagery needed to feed the imagination of the white Canadian and in turn European markets.

Although the book is divided into four chapters, “each of which reflects one approach to photographing Indians,” it is apparent, as the author maintains, that these chapters “all overlap to some degree.” The fact that “the work of certain photographers may fall into several chapters, as their careers progressed and their approaches changed,” is not problematic. What is problematic is the fact that there does not seem to be a clear demarcation line distinguishing the changing events in the lives of the people. For example, what were their lives like when they were free to roam the prairie; how were they impacted by legislation, in particular, the Indian Act; what was the effect of the boarding school system on their lives, etc.?

Black Plume, a Sixapo-Blood Indian photographed by Frederick Steele, 1895 from The Face Pullers by Brock Silversides.
Source: Saskatchewan Archives Board

The terminology used throughout the book is also found to be problematic and at times confusing. Such terms as Indian, Native, bands and First Nations are used almost interchangeably. The tone for this is set in the first paragraph: “It is not intended to be a definitive study, but rather a selection of some of the most interesting images of First Nations people ...”, and then the text goes on to talk about “Indians,” i.e. “Historically, Indians have represented many different things to many different people.” One is at a loss to see the connection between the phrase “First Nations” and the term “Indians” in the suggested context of this book. The text gets into deeper trouble when the page is turned and the reader is confronted by, “If more of these images were accessible to and consulted by both academics and the general public, the history of the myth-making and the reality behind the white race’s often misguided notions about Native people would surely be-come more evident.” We find these phrases used again throughout the text, for example, on page 15; “First Nations peoples on the Prairies,” “Native lifestyle,” “Native people,” “Indian themselves”; on page 57; “Indians were a dying race,” “inability of First Nations people to adapt,” “Indian population,” “Indian race,” “the Native people were no longer a threat to them,” “famous Indian leaders,” “the images of Native people”; on page 99; “the Indian was like a child,” “to assimilate the native people into the main-stream,” “Heavy pressure on First Nations,” “In political terms, the finely tuned Indian process of consensus for the making of band policy ...”. Wow !!!

First Nations, although used in contemporary dialogue, is a misnomer when used in reference to the time periods depicted in the photographs and whether it is accurate in contemporary dialogue is certainly a question; the only Indians in Canada by legal definition are registered under the Indian Act, therefore, not all Natives are Indians and not all Indians are Native.

If the ultimate goal of this book is to debunk the myth-making and paint an accurate picture of a reality then The Face Pullers misses the mark. Indeed, because of the misuse of terminology in the textual descriptions, the book falls into the same trap it is attempting to argue against, that of myth-making and misguided notion.

In the final analysis, I do like the book for the imagery it presents but then these pictures have the ability to do that on their own. The benefit I see of the book is the fact that the pictures, as a collection, are available in one place. For this reason the book will make an attractive conversation piece in most living room settings but I find too many inaccuracies in its text to recommend it as a worthwhile aid for scholars. Aside from the aesthetic value already mentioned, what else it has to offer the general public, besides the contribution to myth-making, which I do not support, escapes me.

Page revised: 11 April 2010