"My elders taught me to be proud of being Iroquois, inspiring me with their stories and their caution to never forget where I cam from. It was my challenge and I was determined to ensure that the description "urban Iroquois" could not be used as a derogatory assessment of my Indian-ness."
Jeffrey Thomas self defines as an Urban-Iroquois. He is a photographer, curator, and cultural theorist. His photographic practice re-contextualizes historical images of Indigenous Peoples.
Thomas was born in Buffalo, New York. Looking back over his childhood he recalls sitting and listening to his elders tell stories, feeling strongly that one day he would tell his own. His opportunity came after a serious car accident in 1979. Though he had experimented with photography while completing his American Studies degree at the University of New York in Buffalo, it was the extended convalescence after the car accident which pushed him to become a practicing photographer. "When I started working as a photographer that was the idea that I had in mind - to tell my own story. It was define myself as I saw myself which was as an urban based Iroquoian person. I remember looking for a definition of that, and I couldn''t find any and there are a lot of reasons why there wasn''t one. What I realized along with the absence of first nation practitioners from the past, was also this void of looking at the urban landscape through aboriginal eyes and what would that look like, what would an aboriginal photographer do, what would he photograph?" (2009). Car Wash, Buffalo, New York, is an example of Thomas''s early work documenting the world around him.
Thomas moved from Buffalo to Toronto in 1984. His feelings of isolation as an Indigenous photographer were soon replaced by a sense of community upon his discovery of the organization NIIPA (Native Indian/Inuit Photographers'' Association). "[it] was interesting because there was just sort of that new movement in defining ourselves and talking and just realizing that we weren''t alone and what does this all mean?" (2009). It was also during this time that Thomas took a snap shot of his son, Bear, that would change the direction of his practice, Culture Revolution, Toronto, Ontario / Two Moons - Cheyenne, 1910 . It was only after developing the image that Thomas realized its strength. It was as if the image forced the viewer to compare the stereotypical depiction of Indigenous Peoples, as seen on Bear''s hat, with that of his son, a young urban Indigenous boy. The graffiti on the wall acts almost as a call to action.
By 1986 Thomas had moved to Winnipeg Manitoba, seven years later he moved to Ottawa Ontario. His move to the Nation''s capital was fueled by his desire to research how Indigenous Peoples were represented in official Canadian records. Later he would work for the National Archives of Canada, developing appropriate captions to replace dated terminology used to describe their collections of photos of Indigenous Peoples. In 1996 Thomas co-curated with Edward Tompkins "Aboriginal Portraits from the National Archives of Canada".
His son Bear continued to appear in his work well into the 1990''s. Later his practice shifted, his photos began to feature miniature Indigenous figurines, The Delegate Visits London England, King Street. This series "The Delegates" would lead to "Scouting for Indians" a series in which Thomas searched towns, monuments, office facades and government buildings for stereotypical representations of Indigenous Peoples.
Thomas was the subject of a documentary film by Ali Kazimi entitled Shooting Indians in 1997. The following year he received the Canada Council for the Arts, "Duke & Duchess of York Prize in Photography". In 2003, he became a member of the Royal Canadian Academy of Art.