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Welcome to the Virtual Exhibit — "Neither Black nor White": Metis and 'Half-Caste' in Photography 

This exhibit analyzes the differences in photographs that depict Metis and 'Half-Caste' individuals from early twentieth-century Canada and Australia. The majority of these photographs were taken by white settlers, who were acting as either state officials or merely civilians. For that reason, the term 'colonial photography' is used throughout this exhibit as a reminder that these photographs are a manifestation of colonialism and their very creation was colonially-driven. As scholar James Curtis notes, "[d]ocumentary photographers" or colonial documentary photographers in this respect, "posed as fact gatherers and denied having aesthetic or political agendas” when in reality, they, just like anyone else, had biases and were subjective in their creation of images. [2]  Accordingly, photographs are inherently subjective and therefore, capable of being analyzed to reveal messages laying underneath the layers of aesthetic, just like a textual source. [3]

In the original articulation of his theory, scholar George Gerber asserted that “[w]e live in a world erected by the stories we hear and see and tell. Stories…weave the seamless web of the cultural environment that cultivates most of what we think, what we do, and how we [act]”. [4] In short, Gerbner’s cultivation theory suggests that “much of the way that people understand the world comes not from personal experience, but from exposure to media content”. [5] Within the context of the early twentieth century, it is fair to characterize photography as a form of said media content and therefore an avenue through which perceptions of the moment were told from the perspectives of contemporaries, but also a means through which later generations can look back and gain an appreciation for how history looked.

This exhibit began as a rather simple research goal to see whether there was the degree of cultural identity or expression within the mixed-race population in Australia as there existed in Canada amongst the Métis/Metis; or if it was simply deemed 'Half-Caste' without any distinctness. The motivation for this specific course of research came entirely from my own curiosity. I had long been aware of Metis culture, especially some of the more well-known symbols like the arrow sash; however, I knew virtually nothing about the experiences of half-Indigenous, half-European individuals in the colonial state of Australia. This curiosity, in combination with a vast scholarship on Metis and 'Half-Caste' histories, laid the foundations for a comparative analysis of Canadian and Australian colonial photography from the early twentieth century, particularly noting the ways in which particular aspects — Who, Where, and What — reflect the differences between the Canada and Australia. Specifically, this photography was of mixed-race persons — Metis or 'Half-Breed' in Canada, and 'Half-Caste' in Australia — and the selection of suitable photographs was dependent on identity of the photographed individual being explicitly acknowledged as Metis, Métis, 'Half-Breed,' 'Half-Caste,' or an equivalent term connoting interracial status in the caption. 

Due to the vast abundance of potential sources, this exhibit focuses narrowly on two geographical regions within each of the colonial states. For the sake of comparison, the photographs are drawn from somewhat remote and sparsely populated northern regions: the Northern Territory in Australia and the historic North-West Territories in Canada, which is roughly equivalent to the northern portion of the traditional Metis homeland. In addition, this exhibit is built upon a firm chronology that focuses on circumstances throughout the course of the initial four decades of the twentieth century. There are a few materials, such as legislation or newspaper articles, that fall slightly outside of the specified time period, but the majority of the sources, including all of the photographs fall between 1900 and 1940. Thus, these two dates act as fairly permeable bookends for the content of this exhibt. 

This exhibit features a variety of primary source materials from the early twentieth century, all of which refer in some manner to Metis and/or 'Half-Caste' peoples. The Metis in Canada, and the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders in Australia have distinct cultural markers; however, an individual's identity is not predicated on those visible elements alone. It is, therefore, nearly impossible to definitively know who was Metis or 'Half-Caste' when looking at historic photographs. For one, cultural identity was not always represented or expressed through such things as clothing or occupation. For example, image 1 depicts a young boy drinking from a glass bottle while sitting outdoors on a wooden bench. [6]

Similarly, the image 2 below depicts three young girls with almost identical dress and hair length standing in what looks to be an open field. [7] Therein, without looking at the captions for these particular photographs, there can be no assumption made as to these individuals' cultural identities because there are evidently no distinguishing features. The absence of cultural markers also means there is nothing to validate or invalidate what appears in the caption. In the case of both photographs, the captions identify the children as Metis but that it is not apparent at first glance. [8]

Image 2 was supposedly taken at Shingle Point Residential School in the Yukon, which was the first residential school specifically created for the Inuit, and was taken only a year after the school’s opening. This was the only image that I was able to find in the course of my research that depicts children explicitly identified as Métis or Metis at residential school. [9] 

In both photographs, the children are identifed as ‘Métis or Metis’ in the captions, with the lone exception being the child in the middle of image 2, who is identifed as Inuit. Similarly, both images were taken in the far North in the year 1930: Image 1 was taken in Fort Norman, (Tulita) Northwest Territories; and image 2 was taken in Shingle Point Yukon. Although, there is no mention of the child in image 1, who is referred to as the 'Métis boy,' in attendance at residential school nor was there an institutional facility in close proximity to Fort Norman in the 1930s. [10]

Therefore, a class photo from a particular residential school would likely have individuals of Indigenous and European descent in the frame, or any photograph in general but it is difficult to discern such a thing without specific labelling. Indeed, there are aspects that are capable of visibly indicating cultural identity, as in the case of the Metis with the arrow sash or the capote; however, that is not to say that all Metis can be distinguished on the basis of these specific markers alone. That is to say, cultural identity is not always visible nor is it easily definable. On the contrary, identity is a very personal concept that defies the type of neat and tidy categorizations that colonial authorities favoured. Academics Gerhard J. Ens and Joe Sawchuk offer a great example of this reality:

"By the time scrip and treaty commissioners had travelled to northern Alberta to negotiate Treaty 8 in 1899, they found few differences between the Indian and Métis populations, who were much intermarried. They offered the Métis of the region the choice of extinguishment of their Aboriginal title either by entering treaty or taking scrip. Once they chose, however, they were bound by their decision. It was possible, and indeed the reality in a few cases, that some members of one family became treaty Indians while others were granted scrip and were enumerated as Métis." [11] 

Thus, while historic individuals may have identified with or belonged to a certain cultural, linguistic or ethnic group, our understanding is largely dependent on the contemporary photographer's chosen terminology and by the extension, the degree of accuracy. [12] In the Canadian and Australian contexts, there is a remarkably similar use of terminiology in the captions. More often than not, the captions include lower-case classificatory labels, like 'half-breed' or 'half-caste,' in reference to mixed-race persons. The lack of capitalization of the above-mentioned terms along with many others is an indication of the colonial attitudes toward those with mixed ancestry, likening them more so to "fauna and flora" than a recognized people. [13] This is exceedingly apparent in the caption for image 3 below, which states "Neither Black nor white - unwanted and with neither Birthright nor Heritage. The plight of the half caste is a sorry one and an urgent problem in the interior". [14]

Upon embarking on my research, I was under the impression that because of their mutual origins in the British Empire, Canada and Australia would for some reason have a common approach to mixed-race populations. That assumption was rather quickly dispelled after reading scholar Katherine Ellinghaus’s article “Absorbing the ‘Aboriginal Problem’: Controlling Interracial Marriage in Australia in the Late 19th and Early 20th Centuries" that noted “umbrella terms such as ‘assimilation’ can mean different things in different times and places". [15] 

Therefore, just because there was commonality, say in the creation of institutions to control Indigenous populations like the Canadian Department of Indian Affairs and the Northern Territory Aborigines Department, does not mean the two states necessarily pursued the same goals. In fact, it was quite the opposite since the Australian State focused on solving the 'half-caste problem' through the "Aboriginal Institutions" and promoting interracial marriages, while the Canadian government undertook a broader assimilation project that targeted First Nations, Inuit and Metis people collectively. Thus, appreciating that Canada and Australia had different objectives and processes of assimilation, I decided to see whether said differences are capable of being identified in photographs of persons identified as Metis and/or ‘Half-Caste’. In that respect, an examination of legislation from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries is necessary to gain a sense of the impact upon Métis and ‘Half-Caste’ populations, and the potential for said policies to be visually detectable in these photographs. Essentially, the contemporary legislation and reports help to contextualize the photographic analysis, and helps to explain why there is such a stark difference in how people of mixed descent are depicted in Canada and Australia within the same thirty-year time period. Evidently, this difference is primarily due to the fact that while authorities in the Northern Territory were operating with a narrower definition and agenda in order to address the 'half-caste problem,' the Metis were not the sole focus of Canada’s assimilation project in the early twentieth century, nor was there an adequate definition within colonial legislation at that time.

In spite of those differences in approach, both the Canadian and Australian authorities encountered considerable difficulty in attempting to define mixed-race populations because they "[refused] simple categorization" on the basis of racial purity, and were therefore a perpetual thorn in the side of colonial officials, who sought clear distinction between ‘white’ and ‘Indian or Aborigine’. [16]

A Brief Explanation of Inspiration and Approach

This specific topic came about after engaging with numerous virtual exhibits, including the Library and Archives Canada "Hiding in Plain Sight" exhibit on Métis in photography as well as the Archives of Ontario exhibit on the history of Treaty No. 9. Additionally, the specific timeframe for this comparative analysis is in keeping with scholar Michel Hogue's call for greater examination of Metis culture and presence within the context of the twentieth century. [17] The history of Metis peoples within Canada is so rich and yet there is a metaphorical mountain of scholarly literature on the later nineteenth century and the 1885 North-West Rebellion in particular.

In addition, these photographs are often not taken into consideration when thinking of the importance of historical sources, which is perhaps due to the fact that their visual component presents a challenge on the basis of intepretation. For instance, you may come across a document — newspaper article, legislative act, book, etc. — from a previous era, and feel very confident because your understanding is derived from the content of said document. In that sense, the text conveys the exact message and an analysis requires only to 'read between the lines' at times or to identify important contextual information to fill out the text's message. Contrarily, there is no real text that helps to understand the subject matter of a photograph. While there are captions and summaries, these are often brief and by extension vague. Therein, to 'read' a historic photograph requires incredibly close observation to very minute details, which are routinely dimissed as insigificant on the basis of being merely decorative. Perhaps it is then important to think about what photographs reflect about the nature of a given moment, as opposed to trying to assert what they are meant to tell us. 


[1] Cover Image (L-R; Upper-Lower):

  • J.F. Moran, Two Métis Children with an Inuit Child at All Saints Residential School, 1930, 1930, Photograph, R216, RG85, Box: 3559, Accession #1973-357 NPC 1974-366 NPC, Item #5276681, Library and Archives Canada / Collections and Fonds.

  • Half-Breed Commission, Baking Bannocks, 1900, Photograph, Item #S-B9782, Gabriel Dumont Institute of Native Studies and Applied Research: Virtual Museum of Métis History and Culture. 

  • Oswald S. Finnie, Camp Scene Including One Metis Man, Two Metis Women, Tipi, 1918, Photograph, R216-3826-X-E, No container specified: 14952, Accession #1973-357 NPC, Item #3379597, Library and Archives Canada / Collections and Fonds.

  • Indian or Metis Family, 1924, Photograph, 4.7 x 7.1 cm, Box: 3830, Accession #1977-233 NPC, Item #3228690, Library and Archives Canada / Collections and Fonds.

  • Sir Walter B. Spencer, Portrait of Jessie Hayes Holding Clem Smith, Taken at The Bungalow, Alice Springs, c. 1923, 1923, Photograph, Silver gelatin print, Black and white portrait, Item #14917, Museums Victoria Collections: Baldwin Spencer Collection.

  • Jack Laver, Boxing Lessons, 1923, Photograph, 20.5 x 15.9 cm, PRG 1365/1/316, State Library of South Australia: Laver Collection.

  • L.T. (Lachlan Taylor) Burwash, Oman, a Métis Cree Man, August 1926, Photograph, R216, Volume: 14945, Accession #1973-357 NPC, Item #3379602, Library and Archives Canada / Collections and Fonds.

  • Jack Laver, Jack Laver with Aboriginal Boys, 1924, Photograph, 20.5 x 11 cm, PRG 1365/1/579, State Library of South Australia: Laver Collection.

[2] James Curtis, “Making Sense of Documentary Photography,” History Matters: The U.S. Survey on the Web, n.d., 2;5. 

[3] James Curtis, “Making Sense of Documentary Photography,” History Matters: The U.S. Survey on the Web, n.d., 2.

[4] George Gerber, “Foreword: What Do We Know?” in Television and Its Viewers, eds. J. Shanahan and M. Morgan (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1999): ix.

[5] Hans C. Schmidt, “Sport Reporting in an Era of Activism: Examining the Intersection of Sport Media and Social Activism,” International Journal of Sports Communication 11 (2018): 6.

[6] L.T. (Lachlan Taylor) Burwash, Métis Boy with a Bottle of Ginger Ale at Fort Norman, Northwest Territories, July 1930, Photograph, R216-1196-4-E, Volume: 14947, Accession #1973-357 NPC, Item #3379605, Library and Archives Canada / Collections and Fonds.

[7] J.F. Moran, Two Métis Children with an Inuit Child at All Saints Residential School, 1930, 1930, Photograph, R216, RG85, Box: 3559, Accession #1973-357 NPC 1974-366 NPC, Item #5276681, Library and Archives Canada / Collections and Fonds.

[8] The original captions actually refer to the children as "halfbreed" but Library and Archives Canada's "Project Naming" in collaboration with Indigenous peoples has begun to add more accurate descriptors of photographed individuals, such as [Metis]. The exception is the middle children in photo 2 who is identified as Inuit. —  Library and Archives Canada, “Project Naming,” n.d.,, accessed December 17, 2020.

[9] National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation - University of Manitoba, “Shingle Point Residential School,” n.d.,, accessed November 14, 2020.

[10] National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation - University of Manitoba, “Memorial Map,” n.d.,, accessed November 14, 2020. There was eventually an institution established in the region of Tulita (Fort Norman) with the Federal Hostel at Fort Franklin that operated between 1967 and 1972. 

[11] Gerhard J. Ens, and Joe Sawchuk, From New Peoples to New Nations: Aspects of the Metis History and Identity from the Eighteenth to the Twenty-First Centuries (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2015): 34. 

[12] The terminology within captions or summaries of photographs may also have been added after the photograph was taken and was sent to an archive. 

[13] Luke Pearson, “Who Identifies as a Person of Colour in Australia?” ABC National News, November 30, 2017, sec. Analysis,, accessed November 6, 2020.

[14] 43. Neither Black nor White - Unwanted and with Neither Birthright nor Heritage, 1928-1929, Photograph, A1, 1928/10743 Item #31708781, National Archives of Australia.

[15] Katherine Ellinghaus, “Absorbing the ‘Aboriginal Problem’: Controlling Interracial Marriage in Australia in the Late 19th and Early 20th Centuries,” Aboriginal History Journal 27 (2003): 183.

[16] Nicole St-Onge, Carolyn Podruchny, and Brenda Macdougall, Contours of a People: Metis Family, Mobility, and History (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2012): 451.

[17] Michel Hogue, “Still Hiding in Plain Sight?: Historiography and Métis Archival Memory,” History Compass 18 (2020): 11.