Photos tell First Nations story

They say a photograph is worth a thousand words.

So the recent book An Honest, Genial and Kindly People tells a massive story as the book highlights a private collection of First Nations photographs from the turn of the century in southern Saskatchewan.

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The book is by Adrian K. Paton, the project arising from his own experience.

“In 1959, the Elwoods sold their land to Adrian and Patricia (Pat) Paton, and for the next 50 or more years I farmed this land,” details the website to the book and author. (Hawk Hill) “intrigued me in many ways and over the years I began to develop a relationship with the land and nature. One constant that made an impression on me was that whenever I worked near it, there was at least one pair of hawks that patrolled a large area. They could see any small rodent that moved and most became a meal for the clutch of young hawks in a nest that was situated in a neighbouring clump of trees.

“One evening, at dusk, as I was about to leave the field a light-coloured hawk landed on the top of the hill. I remember thinking that he may be an albino. When I returned next morning, I found the hawk dead on the hill. On close examination, I concluded that he was very old as he had almost no meat on his bones and his light colour I think was due to age. I buried him on the top of the hill. I hope his soul soars aloft and that his descendants continue to patrol the skies above the hill into eternity.

“In the 1980s I decided that I would try to do something for the land as it was being damaged by wind erosion. With the help of conservation agencies, botanist Nora Stewart and others, I began seeding native vegetation on the hill. I seeded over 80 species and many have survived and flourished. I then decided to erect a stone cairn, somewhat similar to stone monuments erected on hilltops by early civilizations all over the world and to date it is over ten feet high.”

As for the book, Paton came at it with no formal background in writing, offered Valerie Guillemin the project editor. Although he has written many pieces for local publications, An Honest, Genial and Kindly People - A private collection of First Nations photographs from the turn of the century in southern Saskatchewan is Paton’s first published book.  

“Adrian has no formal training as a writer but he has always been very interested in history all of his life and he is considered the local historian for the area, fielding many requests for information,” she told Yorkton This Week. “He has dedicated most of his life to gathering and recording the history of the province.”

Given his interest in the land, Paton also gravitated to an interest in the land’s history.

“In the 1980’s Adrian was involved in the creation of a local history book and at this time he discovered that there were several photographers,  near the turn of the century, that practiced their trade near Arcola,” said Guillemin. “He began to research these photographers and to collect their photographs. Many of these images included Indigenous people.

“Adrian had always had a deep respect and a keen interest in First Nations people and he began to gather all of the information about these photos that he could.

“Eventually he felt that he needed to record and share this information so that it would be available for future generations.”  

The collection became one Paton felt he needed to share.

“Adrian’s knowledge about the photos in the book needed to be shared both with Indigenous people and with the general public so that this important aspect of the history of the prairies would not be lost,” said Guillemin.

While Paton has the photos, there was still a process to go through to create a book.

“Adrian had been gathering photos, and the history behind them, for decades,” said Guillemin. “It took approximately three-years to put the book together, (with help from Guillemin who is also his daughter).

Once the book was completed Paton hired a book designer, Cynthia Hoffos, “who worked with him to create a publication that was very aesthetically pleasing and easy to browse and read through,” she said.

The book is based on the photographs, which Guillemin said are naturally the best aspect of the finished book.

“The original images in the book are outstanding and most of them have never been published before,” she said. “What makes the book exceptional is Adrian’s ability to recount stories told to him by his Indigenous friends and connect them to the photos chosen for this book, weaving the oral and the visual history together.”

Guillemin said while the book has history at its heart, it can appeal to anyone.

“The book has appeal for all ages and we have distributed it to many elementary schools, high schools, public libraries, Indigenous groups, history buffs and to the general public,” she said. “Adrian suggests that the book is an incredible resource for classrooms to complement Indigenous studies programs and believes that it should be available in every public library. Within the book Adrian recounts factual information and also shares personal stories about his acquisition of the photographs which makes for a very easy and enjoyable read.”

And more may be on the horizon from Paton.

“Adrian celebrates his 85th birthday in February but that does not slow him down and he has already been working on shorter historical essays to accompany some of the images in his collection,” said Guillemin.

Also, as curator of the South Saskatchewan Photo Museum, Paton has worked to make his photos available to a broader audience through projects with the Saskatchewan History and Folklore Society, the University of Saskatchewan and Sask History Online. These collaborations have resulted in the digitization of a portion of his collection which is available online to the public and a unique oral history component allowing viewers to listen to Paton’s memories and recollections associated with the photos. A collection of 40 of his most significant photos were chosen to create a physical exhibit which travels across Saskatchewan.

The book is available for purchase through Adrian’s website www.adrianpaton.com and is also available locally in Arcola through the Arcola Town office at 127 Main Street, or at the Gravelbourg Tribune, 611 Main Street, and inquiries can be directed to guilleminval@hotmail.com

© Copyright Yorkton This Week

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