Culture  Photographing her roots

Nance Ackerman’s “Wathahine” put her in touch with her heritage

“Wathahine” means “long journey” in Mohawk. Nance Ackerman’s documentary photography exhibit aptly bears the name, considering both the physical and mental journeys its completion required of her. Physically, Ackerman travelled from the Atlantic coast in Halifax to locales as far as the freezing Canadian Arctic and the Pacific in British Columbia. Mentally, the photographer attempted to tackle a long-standing disjunction between her First Nations heritage and her non-native upbringing, while highlighting female leaders in aboriginal society. The result is an all-encompassing journey that illustrated the lives and accomplishments of First Nations women across a vast country.

The culmination of Ackerman’s project is an exhibit of visual profiles of contemporary First Nations women who are prominent and active within their community. Subjects range from activists, teachers, social workers, and elders, to healers, midwives, artists, and hunters, even including a film maker and a poet laureate.

In an artist’s statement in the exhibit, Ackerman describes an urge to explore her native heritage. As the offspring of a Mohawk father, who was not himself acquainted with his First Nations heritage, the photographer muses whether “maybe things like this skip generations,” referring to the desire to form some type of cohesion between her paternal ethnic background and her present-day disassociation with it. What she ended up doing was “forging a new connection with [her] ancestry.”

Ackerman, a documentary photographer based in Halifax, adds the “Wathahine” portrait series to an already extensive repertoire. In addition to other photographic series, Ackerman has produced documentary films in collaboration with the National Film Board of Canada, many of which focus on marginalized Canadian groups.

Occupying a mid-sized room, the “Wathahine” exhibit is comprised of photographs of some 20 aboriginal women. The black and white portraits line all four walls, facing inward as though the viewer had stumbled into the middle of some monochromatic ceremony.

A video is projected in the middle of the room, narrated by Katsi Cook. A midwife and healer, her level-toned voice follows you through the exhibit, describing a dream she had of a corn field, and the significance the crop has within the First Nations community – especially to women and childbirth. The resonance of Cook’s testimony lies within the connection that she feels with all women, all native people, and by extension, all the characters portrayed in the room, despite their spatial distances. It implies a linking spirituality that by no wonder would incite the latent cultural spirit within native people who have never expressed curiosity at their heritage.

Some portraits offer a look into the everyday for these women, the photographer capturing them at work or at home, while others focus solely on the women’s faces, in stoic contemplation or caught amid an emotional outflow, whether gleeful or forlorn. The subjects’ “strong and compelling testimonials” promised on the museum’s web site, however, were ultimately only a succinct description of the women’s place within or contribution to First Nations society – a few words or a line or two accompanying each portrait. While some elaboration of the subjects’ backgrounds or accomplishments would have added a deeper value to the portraits, in most cases, Ackerman’s photographs speak for themselves.

Talking of her experience photographing the prominent women of Canada’s First Nations communities, Ackerman says she is “left in awe of the resiliency and strength. It was the thread that held these very different women together. This exhibition is a tribute to that strength.”

“Wathahine – Photographs of Aboriginal Women by Nance Ackerman” runs from March 10th to May 15th at the McCord Museum of Canadian History (690 Sherbrooke Ouest). Admission is $13 for adults and $7 for students, which grants entry to the entire museum.