Edward Poitras, Don’t Speak
Tribe Inc. 20th Anniversary project
For the subject of his billboard project, Edward Poitras drew from archival photographs of young girls in the residential school system in Saskatchewan. In a deeply personal text entitled “Don’t Speak” the artist remarks, “Even now when I look at this image, I can’t help but wonder about what happened to these girls. I imagine they became mothers, grand mothers and great grand mothers. With children of their own, some or all taken from them and sent to residential school. Some would know or hear of others who would go missing, like not being there for a group photo. Some would lose their language and others would get it back.”
Edward Poitras Don’t Speak Statement
I came across this photo along time ago, like once upon a time when I was working as a
graphic artist. There were a few photographs that I would end up keeping for what ever reason.
Thinking that someday I would maybe use the image in a piece or maybe just keep as a
reminder of how things were back then.
One was a picture of Pound Maker and Big Bear at Stony Mountain Penitentiary.
Dressed in their prison clothes which were not your usual striped outfits, but rather were
constructed from light and dark pants and tops cut in half and sown back together alternating
the light and dark. One white pant leg and one black and the same with the top. They were
standing and sitting on what looked like the main entrance of a stone and brick building, posing
with other’s that I assumed to be prison officials.
The second photo was of a camp with numerous tee pees with carts parked along side
which seemed to indicate a step up from the travois as with the dog and horse. Defiantly a sign
of change that should have been for the better, but with the dwindling buffalo herds. A nomadic
existence was more of a dream of days gone by, then a reality. A golden age played over again
and again in western movies. A car would have been just as appropriate parked outside, which
is now the norm at gatherings.
So the last photo was of these young girls dressed in the same uniform, with some
holding and petting dogs. Some of the girls are aware of and looking in the direction of the
photographer, but not posing as in your usual group photo. Most have short hair, and when I
think back to the period of cultural initiatives in the seventies. There was this story of a time
when our great grand parents and grand parents went to school, and that if you spoke your in
your mother tongue, you would be punished by having your hair cut off, if it was long which was
the case with most. Short hair was not fashionable at the time that this picture was taken and it
would be decade’s before it would become fashionable. So with this in mind the image loses
and gains some of its impact depending on whats in fashion. Yet they appear to be happy.
When I showed my mother the image she thought she recognized her sister and then began
talking about the uniforms and how there clothes were numbered and how they would do a rolecall with numbers, rather than using their names. A system for keeping track of things and creating order in a changing world.
This photograph is a reminder of what was, relative to another time and place. Even now
when I look at this image, I cant help but wonder about what happened to these girls. I imagine
they became mothers, grand mothers and great grand mothers. With children of their own,
some or all taken from them and sent to residential school. Some would know or hear of others
who would go missing like not being there for a group photo. Some would lose their language
and others would get it back.
As for myself being a recluse, I don’t mind not talking and my dogs don’t say much but
express them selves without words. For a while I entertained the idea that maybe I knew them
from another life. That maybe its possible for ones spirit to transmigrate. A novel idea that is
almost like shape shifting. It was my grandfather who first told me about this old man from the
next reserve over, that he could shape shift into a black dog. He also told me about little people
and even had the artifacts to prove it. He told me a lot of stories while I was growing up and
finally laughed at me when I was old enough to know better.
The background information on this image is that it was taken in 1909 in Lac La Ronge at the All
Saints Anglican Residential School. The Photo was taken by Mrs. Angus McKay who was a
teacher from Winnipeg. Special thanks to the Saskatchewan Archives and the relatives of the
students in the picture.