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[At Owner's Risk: My Journey Among the Algonquian]
1972 / 2007
High resolution scan of original 35 mm negative, archival pigmented ink digital print on photo rag
16 x 20 in
Provided by the artist - Susan Ressler
Today, about 5,000 Attikamekw live on Indian reserves in Quebec. They speak an Algonquian language related to Cree, and are concentrated in three communities in the upper St. Lawrence River Valley: Manawan, Obedjiwan, and Weymontachie.
In 1972, I lived in one of several villages within the Weymontachie Reserve. As shown by my pictures, the French and Indians were neighbors, but relations were often strained. This is not surprising. Ever since Europeans first entered the region (beginning with Cartier in 1534, and followed by Champlain who established the first permanent French settlement in 1603), even indirect contact brought the Indians no end of grief.
The fur trade introduced smallpox, which wreaked havoc on many tribes. It also drew the Attikamekw into a long and devastating war with the Iroquois. Dams and reservoirs flooded Indian land, and most recently, contamination from Canada's hydroelectric plants is reputed to have caused cases of mercury poisoning. *
I saw the egregious results of logging first hand: the battered trees, the despoiled land. Clear cutting had razed the forest and torn it apart. Now that more than 35 years have passed, the next generation of Canada's First Nations is staging protests, blocking highways, and doing whatever it takes to be whole.
When I lived with the Algonquian, most were on welfare, and alcohol abuse was common. I saw the effects of poor diet on children's teeth, the open sores from insect bites, the poverty and the squalor. But I also saw an invincible spirit. I saw kindness and compassion. I saw the will to survive.
If we can look at these pictures in this light, perhaps we can break through history's trance and cease repeating the destructive pattern.
* For more information on the history of the Attikamekw, please see Native American Language Net, a site dedicated to preserving and promoting indigenous languages and culture. For more on current political initiatives to stop environmental degradation and regain ancestral land, search the Internet for current news and the most up to date documentation.