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[At Owner's Risk: My Journey Among the Algonquian]
1972 / 2007
16 x 20 in
Provided by the artist - Susan Ressler
In 1972, when I was but 22 years old and just out of college, I met an anthropologist who asked me if I wanted to take photographs on an Indian reserve in northern Quebec. Without a moment's hesitation, I said "yes."
Where was I headed? Where would I wind up? In a humpbacked Volvo, accompanied only by a young French-Canadian student scarcely more prepared than I, we drove into the equivalent of the Australian outback: a vast Canadian wilderness known simply
as "the bush."
That summer, the American Indian Movement was gathering momentum, Watergate would soon erupt, and the travesty of the Vietnam War had become all too clear. But in Canada, without television and only an occasional radio on the reserve, the "outside world" would fade like a snapshot.
After more than 200 miles of dirt road and one flat tire, we'd arrived. My hopeful gaze was met by a handful of wooden shacks, an empty railway platform, and what I'd eventually recognize as crushing poverty.
Nestled along the headwaters of the St. Maurice River, the village wound through what had once been thick forest, a home for bear, moose, and walleye pike.
Logging had changed this, decimating the land and forever altering lives. The Algonquian (tribe of the Attikamekw) were a hunting and gathering people. Traditionally nomadic, they'd depended on the fish and wildlife to survive.
I knew nothing of this history, of the bitter struggles for cultural identity to save the land and a way of life. Even my own tribal history was vaguely abstract; the Nazi Holocaust had ended before my birth and thus seemed unreal, distant. I was young, naive, yet idealistic; guided by gut instinct and fortunately, a big heart.
Three families would adopt me, a young girl from the suburbs, wearing an army cap to ward off waves of flies. They called me "commandante," but invited me into their homes to canoe with them on the river, to camp and hunt with them in the bush, and to drink.
There was something primal about our relationship. My French was primitive, so we communicated more with gestures than with words. But in time we grew close, and when a gray-haired grandma (yes, she'd had a beer) called me "ma fille," I knew I'd become part of the family. But most of the time I felt invisible.
And now what remains are my memories, a tiny pair of moose hide mittens, a baggage claim, and these pictures.