Dog Teams and 19th-Century Photographic Images
The first and only time I travelled by dog sled was while I was in Rankin Inlet, Nunavut. I was about 27 years old at the time and had been travelling across the country for a series of Indigenous knowledge gatherings, which meant that we were travelling with Indigenous knowledge keepers. One of the knowledge keepers from southern Alberta fell off his sled and broke his leg, while I – after arriving at a local knowledge keeper’s house – thought my extremities might fall off as I suffered through the warming-up process with a cup of hot tea. There’s no winter like a winter in northern Canada with sled dogs.
The National Gallery of Canada is currently featuring two displays, curated by Senior Curator of Photographs Andrea Kunard, on dog teams and on 19th-century photographic illustrations. I was able to see these installations at a recent virtual staff tour, organized by my education colleague Andrea Gumpert. The drawings, photographs and prints include works by Jessie Oonark, Peter Pitseolak, William Armstrong and Josephee Kakee. One piece of information from the tour that strongly resonated with me related to the photographs of Indigenous peoples, whose skin was lightened or whose Indigenous features were changed by artists when the photographic image was engraved. Backgrounds would also be altered, such as in one example, in which the backdrop of hides hanging over a structure has been changed to a forest.
The act of changing the subject or a backdrop reminds me of another work in the Indigenous and Canadian Galleries called A Brief History of Northwest Coast Art by Luke Parnell. In Parnell’s work, the three central panels are covered with white paint – a symbol for the whitewashing of aspects of Haida art history. It also serves as a powerful lesson to understanding how deeply whitewashing and Indigenous art histories are intertwined in a variety of ways.
Dog teams, known as qimutsik, are important to the livelihood of many northern communities. If taught at all, the story about the dog sleds was taught in a way that excluded the truths surrounding the Canadian tragedy of the slaughter of the dog teams by government representatives between the mid-1950s and 1975. It was while I was in Rankin Inlet that I first learned about the killings of the qimmiit (huskies) in the stories told by Inuk elder Piita Irniq, now well known through the NFB film Qimmit: A Clash of Two Truths and the findings of the Qikiqtani Truth Commission. The installations immediately reminded me of Piita Irniq’s stories about the loss of the independence and freedom that qimutsik allowed communities by making it possible to travel far distances for hunting and other important activities.
Looking at the works, I was also drawn to the brightly coloured, beautiful blankets that covered the backs of sled dogs. The practice of decorating animals spans many cultures, and for the Métis and Dene gifting the puppies and dogs blankets – also knows as tuppies – was part of the dog’s and the community’s overall wellbeing. The philosophy of All my relations provides some insight into the meaning: everything is connected. Taking care of the beings who help and take care of us is important and valued – shown by the act of making gifts for the dogs and puppies.
In the early months of the new year, the Gallery’s Education team will be connecting a local Indigenous classroom to the exhibitions, as well as to Anishinaabe artist Rose Moses, who will be sharing knowledge of sewing, beading and stories about puppy tuppies, dog sled history and practices. As Indigenous peoples enter into a season of creating, sewing and storytelling, this project will serve as an opportunity to extend across Indigenous cultures, engage young people and Elders and learn about an important aspect of Indigenous peoples’ and Canada’s history.
The installations Pulling Their Weight: Dog Teams in Indigenous and Canadian Art and Photographic Illustrations in the Nineteenth Century – both part of the ongoing Focus series, a partnership between Library and Archives Canada and the National Gallery of Canada – are on view in A103a until August 2022. The display will be augmented next summer with the addition of Indigenous dog blankets. Luke Parnell’s A Brief History of Northwest Coast Art is on view in A101. For details of the Gallery's Education Programming, please consult the webpage. Share this article and subscribe to our newsletters to stay up-to-date on the latest articles, Gallery exhibitions, news and events, and to learn more about art in Canada.