Performing & Capturing Notions of "decolonization": How white folk co opt our sacred for their guilt
This photo won the “World Press Photo Of The Year'' award and was captured by Amber Bracken, a Canadian photojournalist for The New York Times. She entitled it “Kamloops Residential School” and it is a mix of commemoration and public mourning with reverence to the Indigenous children and youth who were murdered at the Kamloops Indian Residential genocide school. It is a somewhat confusing photo when problematized through the imperial hermeneutic as “important.” “Considered one of the most prestigious and coveted awards in photojournalism, The World Press Photo of the Year is awarded to the image that is not only the photojournalistic encapsulation of the year, but represents an issue, situation or event of great journalistic importance, and does so in a way that demonstrates an outstanding level of visual perception and creativity.” The winner is also given approximately $7000 for “winning.”
When speaking to the photo Bracken said “I could almost hear the quietness in this photograph, a quiet moment of global reckoning for the history of colonization, not only in Canada but around the world.” Quietness? The unearthing of the now over 10, 000 Indigenous children who were shoveled into unmarked graves is anything but quiet to me: it screams. It was the families of the Tk'emlúps te Secwepemc and community members who actually made the vigil which is composed of a mix of red dresses and childrens clothes and shoes to honor the littles lives lost. I have so many questions: like who gave Bracken the authority to title and represent and describe this vigil? How is Bracken spending that money? Some reporters are using descriptive language like “crimson gowns' ' which is a disturbing colonial romanticization of Indigenous women. And if Bracken were to argue that her work was an amplification then where are the authorities on the matter like Kukpi7 Chief Rosanne Casimir and the Indian Residential School Survivors Society and more specifically the guardians of the vigil the community members themselves - where are their specific names? To neglect the aliveness of the people who erected the vigil is to participate in the continued erasure and undermines the power of those who make, protect and hold it.
What’s more problematic is that she stated that “I knew right away that I wanted to photograph the line of these crosses with these little children's clothes hanging on them to commemorate and to honor those kids and to make them visible in a way that they hadn't been for a long time.” This statement is an egregious attack on the hard work Indigenous peoples have been doing in the names of our relatives lost. These children have always been visible to us. So what is the impetus of this desire for you to be the literal lens interpreting this? To be the ambassador for our children?
When I look even deeper into the editing and color washing of the photo it looks to lean on another Indigenous campaign which is the Orange Shirt Day. Which honors former student Phyllis (Jack) Webstad who “told her story of her first day at residential school when her shiny new orange shirt, bought by her grandmother, was taken from her as a six-year old girl.” Annually September 30th is a “legacy project that opens the door to global conversation on all aspects of Residential Schools. It is an opportunity to create meaningful discussion about the effects of Residential Schools.” When you look at Bracken’s photo it’s hard not to observe the orange tones and filterization which co-opts Phyllis Webstands orange shirt living vigil. And even if Bracken is not conscious of this allusion the unconscious pan-Indigenous vigil melding is a form of white supremacy in its communication that the vigils are homogeneous.
If we submit to this imperial assertion that every Indigenous vigil is proximate enough to append then we make vulnerable what is most sacred and that is the authority to determine who we are, how we are to be remembered and how we are posthumously cared for. In ‘‘Like So Many Antigones’’: Survivance and the Afterlife of Indigenous Funerary Remains by Alexander Keller Hirsch he speaks to the states long history of keeping and “studying” Indigenous remains.” That “the museums that hold the bodily remainders often claim custody by right of their value to human kind generally. “Antiquities are the cultural property of all mankind,” James Cuno, Director of the Art Institute in Chicago, has written, “evidence of the world’s ancient past and not that of a particular nation.” This homogeneous interpretation attacks distinct Indigenous Nationhood and the right to hold vigil under our specific Nations legal orders to honor specific state attacks.
In Rachel Flowers' Refusal to forgive: Indigenous women’s love and rage she problematizes settler solidarity with specific attention to the MMIWG and their conflation of Indigenous women’s resistance with love and that “some modes of solidarity are misrecognitions of settler allyship…and the settler desire for recognition by the colonized.” She speaks to ways settler activists “utilize and deploy their privilege” to support anti-colonialism movements “which only upholds the settler position of privilege. In this way, our Indigenous sites of resistance also become sites where our domination is sustained rather than interrupted” and that there is an “insidious move in this that disavows the settler by focusing on individual actions, falsely separating them from the state.” Bracken’s “wants” and desire to be the ambassador for the Kamloopa Indian Genocide vigil and put it into competition is an example of Flowers argument that Bracken is on a micro level replicating its imperial hegemonic governance structure of oppressing and speaking on top of Indigenous peoples and Nations. It is our legal right to hold vigil without colonial agents co-opting its legal servitude by disorientating each particular survivance demonstration.
This disavowal from that state reminds me of another instance of misrecognition in a public vigil, like when I see settlers singing the women’s warrior song at marches and protests. Martina Pierre, a Lil'wat woman said that song that came to her in ceremony and speaks to being a deep prayer that asks the Ancestors and Creator to help us overcome and call upon the woman warriors to help protect the future Ancestors. When I see settlers performing this song at the women’s march I’m aggravated by the deceit. That they come once a year to shout along, take selfies and post about it on their social media platforms to virtue signal because their anti-colonial work is still about what Flowers speaks to as “dominating” and colonial recognition.
Indigenous vigils are not to be submitted to global competitions by white women unless granted legal authority to do so and nowhere in my inquiry have I heard Bracken speak to the permission given by the erectors and or guardians of the ceremony or the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc Nations themselves. Nor any communication on how she will be using this and potentially future revenue she gains by capturing and competing with images of Indigenous vigils. But for certain Bracken will gain notoriety, legitimacy and more opportunities to to comment, capture, and edit sites of Indigenous sacredness and I believe this is an offensive transgression of white settlers guising instances of “allyship” as their participation and culpability in continued acts of genocide against Indigenous children, women and peoples. To submit this vigil to a contest demonstrates settlers' ease to serve Indigenous trauma for global consumption and that they should also be eligible for prizes in doing so. Bracken’s photo is evidentiary that white women upholding imperial notions of "allyship" continue to be one of the greatest threats against Indigenous futurity and Indigenous legal orders.
So don't put out a red dress when you fail to interrogate your own complicity in the ongoing genocide of Indigenous peoples the other 364.5 days of the year and don't repost images of Indigenous women with a red hand painted over their face because that is performative and a deflection of your own complicity and participation. Use today to reflect on how you uphold systems and contribute to the violent oppression of Indigenous Women, Girls and Non-Binary peoples. These days of commemorations and reflection are too loud with the performative protestation of the guilty.